The stunning Lake District tarns to tick off on an open water bucket listMay 6, 2019
Tom Greenwood revels in some adventurous Lake District open water swims
I just had this feeling that my outdoor swimming career was coming to an end.
Call it advancing age or decrepitude or whatever it is that causes aching muscles and limbs after brisk exercise, I felt that my time away from pool swimming would soon be over.
I’d had a good run – if you can do that through swimming: memories of hammering rain as I made my way around Colwick Park in the midlands, or the beauty of Bosworth water.
Great swims in Windermere, Salford’s Quays, the London docks – even braving the sometimes smelly water of the Serpentine (too many geese!).
I loved the embrace of the freezing ocean on many pristine British beaches or the unique Fairy Pools on Skye. And I particularly enjoyed quiet rivers and tarns in the Lake District: the aficionado will recognise Stickle Tarn, Loughrigg Tarn and Blea Tarn.
And it was in that region that I planned my valedictory open water swimming trip.
Three tarns to top the list: Sprinkling, Bowscale and, to finish with, one that could sum up the appeal of this branch of our sport, Hard Tarn.
Because open water swimming is not easy. It takes good planning, good organisation, good willpower and a good deal of determination. But the rewards are superb and make all the above worthwhile.
I knew of Hard Tarn having glimpsed it from above on a couple of occasions whilst walking the fells. I knew of the difficulties of actually getting to it as it lies at a height of approximately 700m above sea level but I knew of the beauty of the approach and the views it affords.
A perfect way to finish my career.
But first the build up. A light sprinkling of the magic…
Sprinkling Tarn is approached from the end of Borrowdale near Keswick in the northern Lakes. I had decided to add a decent hike to these finishing swims, partly as a warm up but also to suffuse myself in the area…
I was very lucky in that my trip coincided with a waft of lovely weather, and so there were lots of cars parked near Seathwaite.
What an area this is. You walk through the settlement and along the track to the superb Stockley Bridge with its occasional dipping pools. Try them for a blast of refreshment!
Go over the bridge and continue upwards on the zig-zagging track to the gate in the wall.
Superb views open up back down Borrowdale to the far height of Skiddaw. Continue up through the larch trees and where the track starts to level out, turn left onto rough ground and follow the little stream up steeply.
This will warm you up perfectly for the swim! It will bring you to the top of Seathwaite Fell from where you continue towards Great End past one or two small tarns that you may be tempted to try out, but persevere as the main event will soon appear.
There was no-one else around. The weather was perfect.
I knew of the danger of getting in too quickly so edged in slowly which gave a delicious torment, or something like that! I knew of the danger of swimming too far on my own so didn’t.
The cold soon had me in its grip and a few metres of breaststroke was enough. Turn over, the sky as deep as my thoughts. Get out and the intense feeling of wellbeing was enough to make me get in again. But not for long. Don’t over do it.
I flopped on the dry grass by the side and revelled in the silence, the solitude, the simple pleasure of swimming somewhere different. And able to fully relate to the majesty of nature.
I was in a cathedral, swimming in a cathedral.
Why do it? It’s the inspiration, the sense of discovery, the difference.
Descending back to Seathwaite down Ruddy Gill, I smiled at the ascending walkers. They had no idea what I had been doing. It was my own secret swimming adventure, one that took me to another level.
The following day, I had my eye on Bowscale Tarn in the north Lakes.
It was another very promising morning but no direct route for me. There had to be a build up to the plunge; an anticipation before the destination was reached.
And so, parking near the village hall in Mungrisdale, it was first of all, the ascent of Souther Fell which gave great views of the whole route.
It’s a steep pull and I was certainly beginning to get warmed up; then traverse the long ridge and descend to Mousethwaite col with more great views of the fells.
Turn right and follow the path along the valley side passing the turn to Scales Tarn, another good swim spot it the conditions are right. At the col, turn right again for Bannerdale Crags and take the rim round to Bowscale Fell – and from there, go to the edge of the drop and look down.
If that view of the beautiful tarn way below does not inspire a dip, I don’t know what will. You can reach the tarn by descending a zig-zag path at the head of the combe, and you should then be ready for a refresher.
But take care. I can not stress enough the danger of plunging in to cold water. Take your time and know what you are doing.
I had my buoyancy aid and wetsuit this time and was fully aware of my circumstances and the need for caution.
This was no heated swimming pool with lifeguards. But the rewards, for those who take care, are strong.
The feeling of immeasurable space; no roof, no side walls – well, side walls of the combe – no smell of chemicals, no lane ropes; just cold water and simply swim. The freedom, the escape, the having the world to yourself; the joy of simple movement.
I do not set out to do a long swim, just enough to make it worthwhile, and never enough, if I’m on my own, to make it dangerous.
And the feeling when you get out! Well, that’s better than anything, the burn, the glow, call it what you want, the delight at being alive.
I revelled in the surroundings and was pleased, my muscles reinvigorated and ready for the short walk back to the car. This did not feel like a swim. It was an experience.
And so to Hard Tarn.
I could not believe that the weather held into my third day – but this would be the hardest.
Not only as the tarn I’d chosen is actually called Hard Tarn, and not particularly known for swimming, though my research had ascertained that it was possible, but also because of its situation.
This would involve another long walk in to quite a remote spot – and the clouds were threatening.
Starting from Patterdale or Glenridding in the eastern Lakes near Ullswater, it is a lovely walk along Grizedale with the destination right at the head of the valley.
I spent most of the walk comparing it to my usual walk – or drive – to my local pool. That is a busy road and the humdrum of a suburban town; this was roaring peace of a green and quiet valley, where my further steps took me further and further away from the norm and deeper into something special.
But that pesky cloud now took a turn and started to shroud the tops. I started to worry, knowing how high the tarn was.
At Ruthwaite Lodge, the fun started and the real work began. You leave the path behind and begin a steep ascent into Ruthwaite Cove. Take it steady and ponder on how this is a bit different to your normal approach to the pool!
I was lured onwards by occasional breaks in the cloud and even a blue clearance for two minutes. It was promising glory.
By now, I was so keen to actually see the tarn before the world was consumed by clouds, that I kept a strong rhythm though my heart was beating hard but the wind was picking up…
You have to have done your homework to know when to veer over to the hidden shelf – and there it was. Hard Tarn. Xanadu. I was really pleased just to have got there. What a swim spot.
But the famed view was gone.
Just as swiftly as I’d arrived, the cloud demons laughed at me and flung a shroud over my hoped for panarama.
I know the tarn is perched above a big drop into the cove held in place by bare rock, a stunning position. I’d wanted to swim there as it gives the impression of an infinity pool – but not now.
The wind swirled in and suddenly it was cold. Any point of a finishing and triumphant swim was lost.
I walked around the tarn, yes you could swim in it – just. Maybe a delicate breaststroke. But the whole point was to luxuriate and swim in the sky and the distance, not shiver in the bitterness.
I turned to descend but was not disappointed.
I resolved that my outdoor swim career would not end at that point.
I would be back and, in the meantime, would use my local pool to keep myself fit whilst searching out other swims of note. Maybe not as hard as this one but – you never know!