Head to the Hills - extreme swimming in the Lake District
PUBLISHED: 11:03 11 June 2013 | UPDATED: 11:03 11 June 2013
Thoughts of calmly gliding through an undisturbed tarn with just a blue sky and my own thoughts to distract me – that’s my idea of Wild Swimming. The term has become trendy in recent years with books, blogs and websites using the term for something which people have been doing since time immemorial; now there are even courses in it and that’s how I ended up in Windermere on a cold, wet, windy day.
The event was run by Head to the Hills who had sent me plenty of emails hoping I would enjoy my introduction to the extreme sport. Extreme sport? There were others advising me to wear thermals under my wetsuit if I was prone to feeling the cold and that I would be taking part in the press launch of Britain’s longest and toughest challenge swims. How I wished I’d read them. I found myself taking part in an open water swim in Windermere alongside triathletes, a couple of men in their early 20s and the only person older than me was one of Britain’s greatest mountaineers, Alan Hinkes. But I’d signed up to it and the fun atmosphere got me carried away so suddenly there I was, in a wetsuit, hat and goggles and my face contorted into a fixed smile – there were lots of photographers there after all.
The day was led by Pete Kelly and Andrea Tucker who set up Ambleside-based Head to the Hills nine years ago. They were promoting their Utterly Buttermere Swim, just one of the events they organise alongside open water training and guided swims with romantic names like Hellvellyn Double Dipper Adventure Swim and Wordsworth Wild Swim. The couple are lovely, real enthusiasts and the sort of people who persuade you that you are having fun even when you are not. But nothing they said could change the fact that it was 6C in the water and choppy; usually they wouldn’t take beginners out under those conditions, but this was a press launch and they’d given us lots of warnings (all those unread emails) so the show went on. Under grey skies we made a dash for the water where the safety boat, lifeguards and Pete in a kayak awaited us.
I’m a reasonable swimmer but have never mastered front crawl was soon left behind with Andrea staying alongside me and giving me words of encouragement, saying how the cold affects even super fit people. (Afterwards I read an interesting theory put forward by a doctor who believes that the body reacts in a similar way to swimming in a cold sea as it does following surgery.) In no way have I ever fitted into the ‘super fit’ category. At that moment out of the corner of my eye I saw Pete gliding past in his kayak. In a move which could have got me a bronze in any county gymnastic competition I lunged towards the kayak and grabbed hold.
It turned out that I wasn’t the only one hitching a lift, the other ‘struggler’ was Alan Hinkes, although to be fair he’d just stopped by for a natter with his old mate Pete. Now Alan may have climbed the world’s 8,000 metre peaks with all the willpower that requires but he was never going to win the battle as to who got towed round the lake. He swam off, much to the delight of the onlookers on the shore.
Suddenly I started enjoying myself. This is what it was all about for me, seeing the fantastic scenery from the eye level of the water. It may have been a trick of the light but I’m sure there was a halo shining over Pete’s head as he paddled on. At one point he suggested I might like to do a little more swimming. Nice thought and one I declined. The immersion probably only lasted about 15 minutes but felt so much longer and afterwards in the comfortable confines of the Cragwood Country House Hotel there was much talk of ‘highs’ and ‘endorphins’.
Swimming in the lakes, rivers and tarns in the Lake District has taken over Andrea and Pete’s lives. ‘There are so many gorgeous places to swim and you see the area from a completely different perspective. It’s one of those things that everyone should do before they die,’ said Pete, 43. Since they set up their Introduction to Open Water Swimming course hundreds have signed up for it. ‘We teach people what we have learnt in the last 10 years in half a day! They can taken the information away and use it when they are doing their own thing,’ he said. Many are aged from 35 to 60 all wanting a ‘taste of adventure’, according to Andrea, 41.
‘We try to weave a bit of the Lake District into the swims, it’s an adventure and journey, it captures the imagination,’ she said.
In the past six years the Outdoor Swimming Society has seen its numbers increase from just a few hundred to more than 13,000 and celebrity David Walliams swimming the Thames and the Channel has no doubt contributed.
I’d love to go Wild Swimming again but with warmer water, a bit of sun and preferably without photographers and TV cameras monitoring my every cough and splutter.
The Utterly Buttermere Swim is on Saturday, June 8, and has been described as the Lake Districts most exciting and challenging swim. The 10k event is reckoned to be the toughest long-distance swim in England in spectacular surroundings.
For information about this and the organisers go to www.headtothehills.co.uk
If you’d prefer to read about Wild Swimming rather than do it, there are many books on the subject but one of the originals is still the best, Waterlog by Roger Deakin.