Wild swimming in the Lake District
PUBLISHED: 00:00 20 February 2020
In her mid-50s a mum-of-two embarked on a remarkable challenge to swim in 60 lakes and tarns around the Lake District.
Jean Hill steps across the beach into the shallows of the lake and immerses herself in the sparkling waters. Trees sweep the shores and from her duck's eye viewpoint, the mountains seem to tower into the shimmering turquoise sky.
Since she first dipped her toe in the open waters in 2016, Jean's experiences have been so exhilarating that she now swims weekly, whatever the weather or temperature, and without a wetsuit.
For her very first attempt she promised herself she'd at least go in up to her neck. 'It was Loweswater and I was terrified,' she said 'I felt very small and didn't know where to swim as I couldn't see the bottom, and a National Trust Ranger had warned us of the dangers of getting Lymes or Weil's disease.
'I stepped in and then crouched in the water, literally up to my neck. But as I watched my friends swimming off I thought 'I want to do that'. I went again, then started going regularly. About a year later my husband joined me and also got hooked.'
In the summer of 2016 she and her family were still living in temporary accommodation and dealing with the aftermath of the floods of 2015. When a friend suggested they go open water swimming together, Jean agreed - and found it helped her relax.
She loves it so much she has now set herself the challenge of swimming in 60 lakes, meres and tarns before her 60th birthday next year.
Although she's ticked off the main Lake District lakes, there are plenty of tarns to choose from and her goals for this year include learning front crawl, bagging more tarns and also swimming a length of Buttermere - that's about 2km.
'We tried to swim a length of Buttermere in September but it was too windy and too late in the year,' she says.
This is the beauty of open water swimming, but also at times its risk: the wind can funnel through valleys, creating surprisingly high waves; beaches disappear when the water is high; unexpected currents can surprise you. No swim is ever the same: there are lots of variables, unlike swimming in a pool.
Jean and her group never swim to exhaustion, never swim alone, always look out for each other, and everyone has a tow float. They also always have a hot drink and usually cake as well when they get out, and she highlights what a sociable activity this is.
'I've made lovely, supportive friends,' she says. 'It's a great leveller and you become hyper-aware of your environment: once in Coniston Water I looked down and saw lots of tiny fish. It struck me that I was in their home. I haven't worn sunscreen since then, unless I'm doing a long swim on a sunny day and am in real danger of burning.'
Being aware of the environment raises the problem of pigmy (pond) weed, an invasive secies which forms thick mats of vegetation on lake beds, out competing native species and affecting spawning grounds for fish, including the rare vendace.
Jean and her group have two different sets of swimming kit: one for the lakes already affected by pigmyweed, which includes Bassenthwaite, and another set for those which aren't. They wash their kit thoroughly after each outing.
There have been some scary moments which serve to keep people aware of the dangers of open water swimming, but the pleasures and benefits outweigh the dodgy moments.
'It's a great stress reliever and confidence builder: I feel if I can do this I can do anything,' says Jean, who works for the NHS in Learning and Development and moved to Carlisle about 30 years ago.
And her favourite lake? 'It has to be gorgeous Grasmere. There's a pleasant, fairly short, walk to the beach, beautiful surroundings… and a one-legged duck which comes up to say hello.'