Walking down the slipway at Fell Foot Park in the pouring rain, into Lake Windermere was probably one of the most surreal experiences I have had. Six months of training, the agonisingly boring effort of counting lengths while ploughing up and down a pool which at times nearly made me run for the hills, never to darken the chlorinated lanes again; the extensive search for non-leaky, non-foggy goggles (I fear they don’t actually exist) and the long distance FaceTime calls to my friend, a nutritionist in Australia, all culminated into one day of swimming ten and half miles on August Bank Holiday Sunday.
Why was I doing it ? A random conversation with a lady on the bank of the River Dart mainly. This lady, as I found out later, turned out to be Kari Furre, a director of the Outdoor Swimming Society, swim guide and a huge promoter of wild swimming particularly in the south west. She was off to swim Lake Windermere and her conversation stuck in my head until this January when I persuaded my husband Mark to enter me to swim from Fell Foot at the base of Windermere up to Ambleside at the most northern point as part of a group organised by Swim Your Swim.
Lake Windermere is 17k long (10.5 miles) and is in Cumbria’s Lake District. It’s the largest natural lake in England and its maximum depth is 219ft. Between March and August I swam 7600 lengths, equal to nearly 119 miles. In addition I swam along the buoys at Sidmouth and in the gloriously clear waters of Beer. As a family we discovered caves and secret swimming holes. If you can find the ravine from Sugary Cove to Castle Cove in Dartmouth you’re in for a real treat.
Suddenly it was August and we were in the car heading north. I never knew what a ‘ball of nerves’ really meant until the few days before the swim. It was like a rolling ball of holly that sat just below my ribcage. The day of the swim dawned. Sod’s law it was raining and the mist had descended with no sign of the beautiful Cumbrian hills in the background.
As it was an organised swim I was put into a group of 4 other people. One of them was Kate Sunley, the worlds first female amputee ice miler, an amazingly determined swimmer. The start was very eerie and quiet with only the mist and the pattering of rain to begin with. The water was inky black on the surface and dark amber underneath, but gloriously clear and soft. A balmy 18 degrees meant it wasn’t too cold which was encouraging.
The joy of open water swimming is manifold. It’s seeing a part of the countryside from a completely different perspective that not many people will see. It’s the feeling of complete madness in what you are doing, I mean, Bank Holiday Sunday, how many people are in the middle of a lake in the rain ? It’s the total hedonistic pleasure of watching clear bubbles flood through your fingers upwards like champagne in soft clean rainwater. It’s wanting to stay in the calm peaceful tranquillity for just a moment longer and of turning upwards to face the sky to watch a formation of Canada geese fly overhead or of watching swallows dive for insects on the shallower waters.
A little safety motor boat accompanied myself and the other swimmers, carrying a couple of fantastic support guys. They’d stop us every hour over the six hours to hand us our drinks (water, hot ribena, hot chocolate..) and our snacks. After much anguishing over what to have, I finally decided on a diet of jelly babies, chocolate m&m’s, flapjack, homemade cheese and marmite muffins, peanut bars and for the last feed a big square of rocky road and a few squares of the incomparable Kendal mint cake. If mountaineers could eat it at the top of mountains I reckoned I could eat it at towards the finish of my swim in Ambleside.
At no point did I think ‘I can’t do this’ and having raised just over a thousand pounds for two Exeter charities (Children’s Hospice SW and St Petrock’s) I did feel totally supported by friends, family, neighbours in Broadhembury, work colleagues at Christopher Piper Wines and locals in Ottery St Mary. The sight of my parents, husband and daughters waving from a pier in the rain at the halfway point was so lovely and appreciated, especially as they had waited for a good hour getting soaked before I came past.
As I was guided into Ambleside six hours and 45 minutes after the start by a support boat I took a chance to enjoy the last few moments of swimming in the Lake before I waded in, quite tearfully on my part but also on that of my parents and family, to the cheers of the patiently waiting crowd and the best glass of Pol Roger Winston Churchill 2004 I have ever tasted.
It has left me with a huge sense of achievement. I’m still carrying my medal around with me and although I’m not looking for another lengthy adventure there is something called the ‘Polar Bear Challenge’ that may just carry me over the winter months….