Rebecca explains her own cautious but fulfilling relationship with taking dips in the Lake District.
I’m perched on the edge of Windermere, looking nervously across the dark expanse of water. Overhead, the January skies are leaden grey, thick and heavy with the threat of rain. My cosy ski jacket covers my swimsuit, my sports sandals separating my feet from the cold pebbled ground.
I’m trying to coax my mind into thinking this is a good idea, gently reminding myself of the joyful rush of adrenaline that comes from a cold water dip.
Counting down silently in my head, I throw off my jacket, pull my bobble hat tightly over my head and begin to gingerly walk in. The water pricks at my skin like a thousand tiny daggers. I want to go back. But I push on until I’m waist-deep.
As I plunge my shoulders in, I become aware of my breath quickening. I steady myself and take deep, slow breaths to control it. At this moment, nothing else mattered.
I gaze at the striking mountain vistas – the sharp, jagged Langdale Pikes to my left, the towering Fairfield Horseshoe near Ambleside to my right.
After a minute or so, I can take no more, my skin ruby red and raw.
I wade back to the shore, the cold pulsating through my body. A sense of elated euphoria rises up as I sip on blissfully hot soup from my flask.
I’d done it, the first dip of the year, deep in winter.
Since moving to the Lake District nearly three years ago, I’ve slowly built up a love and confidence for taking wild dips. I always stay well within my depth close to the shore and I only dip on days when the water is calm.
I remember my first dip so clearly. It was a balmy hot summers evening and I’d just finished a run with my friend next to Derwentwater. I’d always had a nervous relationship with the open water, having only learnt to swim in an indoor pool as a child at school, so I was reluctant when my friend suggested a dip.
“Wild water is not for me”, I whispered as I watched people wade in with wetsuits and tow floats. “This water is for everyone” my friend gently pointed out. Warm and glowing from our run, we went down to the lakeshore, took off our trainers and running gear and lowered ourselves into the cool summer water.
It was a revelation to me.
The thoughts and worries that I’d carried with me throughout the day fell away, bringing me right into the present. An immediate connection with the landscape was forged, I was surrounded by mountains and immersed in the water that had run off them.
This was a world away from the sterile, sanitised atmosphere of the indoor swimming pools I’d learnt to swim in.
It was just me and the water, a real sense of grounding. Few activities allow such a deep immersive connection between body and mind.
From then on, it ignited a love for outdoor dips in a variety of places and seasons in the Lake District.
From the fjord-like Ullswater in late March in the icy snowmelt cascading down from Helvellyn to a refreshing post-hike dip in Wastwater after climbing Whin Rigg near Wasdale in the wild and remote Western Lakes. Closer to home, a bracing dip amongst the golden, fiery autumn leaves from the gnarled old oak tree on the banks of Rydal Water with hot chocolate and local gingerbread as a reward.
Each season there are gentle, subtle changes. In the landscape, in the plants on the shoreline, in the colour and texture of the water. Every time I am reminded of my sense of vulnerability when the water envelopes me, centring me in the present moment.
These dips have instilled a sense of confidence in me, subtly helping me remove the labels of what I thought I could and could not do.
That even on a dark, bracing January day, I can do hard things and that this is where I belong.
Three accessible places in the Lake District for beginner wild dips…
Rydal Water Easy access on the southern shoreline and is relatively warm in summer due to its reasonably shallow depth.
Derwentwater Within easy reach of Keswick, and lots of good options on the stony shoreline with an opportunity to see spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
Coniston The stony bay around Monk Coniston provides easy, shallow access for a dip with the stunning backdrop of the Old Man of Coniston.
We recommend you consider the following safety points wild swimming/dipping in the Lake District as well as doing additional location-specific research on safety before you go.
• Be a confident swimmer and ideally be with a friend.
• Stay visible: make sure you wear something bright, like a colourful swimming cap, and ideally a tow float. This is especially important when swimming on the bigger lakes, near boats.
• Some of the lakes such as Ullswater can have sudden and deep underwater drops which makes an ability to swim essential for safety, even when paddling.
• The stony ground can make you very unbalanced when entering the water so swim socks or sandals are advisable.
• Stay close to the shore, this is especially important in cold water, where cramps could set in very quickly.
• Know your limits: if the water is cold, you should never stay in for longer than is comfortable and remember that it’s important to get out and warm up immediately with plenty of layers and a hot drink.
• Remember you can’t spend as much time in lakes and tarns as you would in an indoor pool, especially when you are just beginning (a simple tip for very cold water is that if you begin to feel comfortable it’s time to get out).
• Warm-up slowly: if the water is particularly cold, don’t jump in a hot shower straight away (as tempting as it is!). Instead, use clothing and towels to warm yourself up first, so as not to shock your system.