Growing up in a family with a serious Lake District obsession means that Wastwater is a near-mythical body of water. England’s deepest lake was, and is, inevitably reached after a mammoth journey, and like nowhere else signals that you’re in the nethermost of Albion’s mountain territory. Beyond here is remote Wasdale Head, and all around are great sentries of green peaks: Great Gable, Lingmell, and the two tops of the Scafell Massif.
The lake itself is no mere decoration. On Friday I did something I’d been thinking about for some time. From the warm comforts of the Brackenclose, the Fell & Rock Climbing Club hut that stands sentry at the foot of the tourist track up Scafell Pike, I strolled down to the lake shore. There are a choice of entries – a grassy slope over towards Wasdale Head Hall Farm, a rocky beach where the Mosedale Beck flows into the lake. I went for somewhere in between after hopping a gate which led to the water.
The sun was, after an afternoon of rain, shining straight down the lake, turning a strip of the surface yellow. Swimming into the sun like this is intense and thrilling. Perhaps buoyed by the excitement, the dark water wasn’t as cold as I’d expected. Still gasp-inducing, still exhilaratingly cold, but soft, deep and lovely to splash about in.
Flipping on to my back the magnificent cathedral of rock that is the Wasdale Valley came into view. I barely had to move my head to take in Yewbarrow, Great Gable, Lingmell and Scafell Pike. Turning again, I swam into the golden sun briefly, then clambered out.
After two days on the hills, climbing some of the tops I’d gazed at from the water and exploring Mosedale Valley in bright sunshine, I walked down the track again on Sunday afternoon. A bright morning had passed, and the sun that had shone on the screes on the southern slopes of Illgill Head had just popped behind the now-glowering cloud. No matter. Time for another dip.
This time I didn’t enter the water with anything approaching grace, more slipping on some rocks and ending up half-crawling until at swimming depth. Strange and different: the water felt much colder, more like a winter swim than the late-summer fun I’d had 48 hours before. This means you can feel yourself getting colder as you swim, and swear a lot. My father-in-law’s suggestion of fifty strokes out and back, whatever the temperature was duly completed, and I walked fast and shivering back to the Brackenclose open fire.
Swimming in the Lake District is shake inducing and breathtaking: pack your trunks and join in the excitement.