Back in the Lakes! I’m only up for a couple of days and sadly these will probably be my only swims on this visit but it’s been lovely to be back in the fells. I’ve stayed for two nights at the Bridge Inn in Santon Bridge near Wasdale and was hoping to get in a couple more swims but have been thwarted twice – when I arrived here on Wednesday evening I went over to Muncaster Tarn hoping for an evening swim but was greeted with signs saying ‘Private Property’ and ‘No public right of way’ in unfriendly capitals. I’ve been thinking more recently about access and I’m a bit torn. On the one hand I don’t think it’s ok to go tramping over other people’s land but on the other I’m not sure I agree with the idea that it’s ok to privatise these bodies of water. The same thing happened this morning – I got up early hoping for a dip before breakfast but when I got to Woodhow Tarn (which looks like it has access from the path on the map) the end near the path was all fenced off with barbed wire and the only other access was through clearly private fields full of sheep. My plan is, one day, to try to contact the owners of these bits of land and ask for permission to swim but for now I’m afraid I had to leave them.
But… yesterday I did manage to do a couple of swims. Hooray! I parked in Wasdale with a route planned taking in three tarns. I set off along Nether Beck, following the path to start with and then cutting off to the right up Blackbeck Knotts towards High Fell. This was very steep and bracken-y. Having been bitten by ticks in the past I was glad of my long trousers which I tucked into my socks and kept my hands high. Luckily it’s still fairly early in the year so the bracken wasn’t too high for which I was very grateful. It took my a long time to climb the fell side, stopping every couple of minutes to catch my breath, check I was still heading in the right direction and make sure there were no gaps in my clothing where ticks might get in.
I finally made it to the top (after many, many false summits!) and found Low Water in a slight hollow. I wasn’t well last week and I’m still feeling tired so I was pretty pooped after the steep climb so I sat on a big rock by the tarn, had some food and just enjoyed being completely alone in the mountains without sight or sound of another human being.
Eventually I could procrastinate no more. It was pretty breezy and the sun was coming in and out of the clouds every minute. I wanted to wait for a longish sunny spell but -of course – none came along so I just hurried into my swimming things and squelched my way around the tarn to the far side. It felt strange to be there, it feels like so long since I’ve done this and, although it sounds odd, it feels like I’m out of practice. I walked right to the edge of the water and looked in. It was black. Completely black. It could’ve been three inches deep or bottomless, there was no way of knowing – apart from one. I gingerly reached out a foot and slid it into the water. The water was a foot or two deep – and the silt below it was bottomless. It didn’t feel too cold though so I plunged forward, taking strides as big as I could manage, hauling my feet out of the sludge with every step. And those of you who follow this blog will be very glad to hear that…. Archibald is back! For those of you who don’t know, Archibald is a little duck with a thermometer in his tummy who tells me the temperature of the water when I swim. I briefly lost him last year, but he is found and (I’m sure) glad to be back in the water. His readout kept flipping between 17 and 18 degrees C and it really didn’t feel too cold but nevertheless I hurried across and then prepared to stick my face into the water for my underwater selfie.
The trouble was, as I mentioned before, the water was thick black – I couldn’t see anything below the surface. I tried not to move so that I wouldn’t stir up the silt on the bottom but it was hopeless. In the end I just stuck my face into the water and hoped. The result was not great.
That dark bit on the right is my face. Honest. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
I scrambled out of the water and back into my dry clothes, putting a dry bikini underneath as the walk over to Scoat Tarn wasn’t far. I studied the map and then set off along the top of the fell. It was a very bumpy area and I kept telling myself that once I got over that bump just ahead I would be able to see the tarn.
As I came around one bump I saw of a group of walkers a little way off – they all had lots of layers and hats and walking poles and huge rucksacks. I felt very lacking in gear with my old fleece and my small rucksack half-full of swimming things! But they were a good sign – I knew there was a path (a real path!) near the tarn and sure enough as I came around the next knoll there it was.
I made my way round to the left of the tarn and found another big rock to sit on and have a little bit more of my food. The intervals of sun were becoming shorter and fewer and the wind was starting to pick up. The water looked grey and cold and uninviting and I was feeling very tired. But I’d climbed all the way up here and I was damned if I was leaving here without a swim. I gave up on waiting for a sunny spell as I saw a heavy black cloud looming towards me. As I undressed I placed my clothes under my dry bag and rucksack and turned my boots upside down in case of rain.
I walked a little way along the bank and found a spot that didn’t have too many big rocks where I thought it wouldn’t be too bad to get in. I stepped into the water and took a few steps forward – and the cold gripped me. It was so painful that after a minute I had to step out again and wait for a moment to recover. I really, really didn’t want to be doing this. I was tired, it was windy and it was so, so cold. But it turns out I’m nothing if not bloody minded and I was determined to do the swim now I was here. I walked slowly, slowly into the water, every extra inch of depth searing into my skin. Twice I tried to start swimming and had to stop and stand on the bottom, gasping for breath. But the second time I stopped I’d gone a bit deeper and even when I was standing the water came up to my shoulders. Feeling frozen and tense I looked down – and saw that the water was crystal clear. Even in the midst of feeling so cold and focused on forcing myself into the water, there was a moment of joy at seeing that – that pure, clear water, here, high in the fells, embracing my body, holding it in the landscape. When I’d got in Archibald had said it was 15 degrees but that had dropped to 14 as I got deeper – only a very few degrees colder than Low Water but it felt so different. But standing in the deeper water helped me to adjust and eventually I did manage to lean forward into the water and start swimming. As I was on my own I didn’t want to go out into the deep water so I swam around the northern edge and back. I did get used to the cold but I could still feel it – I often stop feeling it after a while, at least to the same degree but today I just couldn’t seem to get there. The water felt good and it felt great to be swimming again, moving through that clear water with the fells rising in front of me and dropping away behind, but I knew I was getting too cold and turned back towards my things. For one brief moment as I swam back the sun peeped out of the clouds and the water in front of me sparkled.
As I got close to the shore I prepared myself for my underwater selfie. I took a breath and ducked, grinning and snapping away at the shutter in the hope of getting a picture. Then I hauled myself over the rocks and back onto the shore, grabbed my towel and started rubbing at my numb arms.
It was hard work getting dressed – I was very, very cold now, numb and shaking like mad. And this was the moment I made a tough decision; I wasn’t going to do my third swim of the day. I was tired and shuddering with cold and although I wanted to make the most of being on this side of the Lakes I knew it would be bad decision to try to make myself do a longer walk and another swim. Within a few minutes my jaw was aching from chattering my teeth uncontrollably and although I was sad not to do the third tarn I knew it was the right choice. I made my way back into the valley and followed the beck back to Wastwater and back along the road to my car – just as the rain finally arrived.
Although I didn’t manage to achieve all I’d set out to do I was still pleased with this day and glad to be swimming again – hopefully I’ll be back up soon for more!