Swimming in the Lake District requires full commitment. There’s no point tentatively dipping a toe, waiting until the water warms or the weather clears. You just need to get in. But it took me a while at Bowscale Tarn, getting wetter and colder as the rain fell, to reach that conclusion. I needed to stop dithering and immerse myself.
I’d been invited to Bowscale by Suzanna Cruickshank, who runs guided swim trips, particularly in the northern and western lakes. “Visitors often think the south is where it starts and finishes,” she told me, and Windermere, for example, will certainly be more familiar to open-water swimmers. “But the north has a different flavour to it,” she added. “The hills are different, the lakes different and it’s quieter. It’s an accessible wilderness.” For about an hour we’d tramped soggily along a stony path, winding further up the side of the fell, the river Caldew flowing swiftly across the distant valley floor. Water coming at us from every direction but no sign of anywhere to swim. This is one you don’t see until you’re right on it.
In Victorian times, the path was frequented by travellers who trekked here on ponies, eager to witness the tarn’s wild and stark setting, a place where, according to legend and Wordsworth’s Feast of Brougham Castle, two immortal talking trout lived. As we finally came up atop a bowl of dark water in the scoop of Tarn Crag, I had all kinds of questions lined up for these fish.
We’d arrived at Bowscale, at its “kiddy pool”, created by a line of rocks across one end, like the dams we used to build on holidays but on a bigger scale. Suzanna led me round to an entry spot; this is why it’s useful to have a guide, as the good ones know the best places to get in and out. Then, while she waited patiently, knee deep in the chill, I stood looking, not feeling like it at all. Maybe I’d left my commitment at the bottom of the hill. Maybe I was thinking ahead to the bit where I had to put these wet clothes back on, which would feel rubbish. Maybe I just needed to get over myself. I steeled myself and got in.
The evening before, we’d swum with friends from a small shingle beach at Crummock Water and there was so much chop it felt like the sea; one of those “20 minutes out, 10 minutes in” swims that could convince a person that lakes have tides. When blowsy cloud had moved across the surrounding hills, making the colours bloom then fade, it was “like looking at a Hockney video”, said my friend Barbara. Bowscale, much higher up and on a day of eternal rain, was more a static painting. The glossy black water met the moss green crag under a bleak grey sky; a few distant pointillist sheep. But then, “look underwater”, said Suzanna, so I put my head in and the whole palette changed. Under here it was milky green, unexpectedly pastel; it softened everything.
An unhelpful wind sent the rain skittering across the surface. Outdoor swimmers become attuned to the quality and variety of rain; today’s was gently persistent. Concentrating on watching my step as I got in (bring swim shoes) meant I didn’t notice the water temperature until I was shoulders under; the surface had the sting of a slap, but underneath was warmer. Just enough for us to swim to the other side of the tarn and back, mess around, dive and chat and exclaim at the beauty of this isolation, too swollen with life to feel bleak. Then I was done; last in, first out – not everyone has the same tolerance.
It turned out that pulling on damp clothes was entirely mitigated by post-swim elation and a bubbling high. Inescapable grins and hot coffee from Suzanna’s flask. Huddled under a robe, sticky, useless fingers made it tricky to do a fiddly bra strap.
We’d talked all the way up, we talked all the way down. About how Suzanna started off in the Lakes as a walker with her late father, when “it was all about the hills. I didn’t take any notice of the water”, but had got into Derwentwater when his health was failing. “I didn’t want to walk when he couldn’t.” How the area offered such a variety of experiences and people; she can “swim the length of a lake with Ali and Fiona, or take a dip in a tarn with Lottie”. Her route from a “not outdoorsy childhood” to becoming an expert guide as swimming here becomes more popular.
As we reached the car, something obvious occurred to me. Wordsworth’s “immortal talking trout”. They were me and Suzanna, and all the people who came before us, and all the ones who’ll come after, not dumbstruck by this place but inspired by it, full of words. Suzanna has nothing troutish about her, but for myself? Immortal talking trout? I’ve been called far worse.
• Suzanna Cruickshank can be contacted on Facebook and through suzannaswims.co.uk. Further descriptions of her swims in the Lake District can be found at wildswim.com. Golakes.co.uk provided the trip, with hotel accommodation at Allerdale Court Hotel, travel with Virgin Trains and bus transfers with Stagecoach.
Jenny Landreth is author of Swell, A Waterbiography (Bloomsbury Publications, £8.99)