One of the many pleasures of moving to Cumbria last year was the opportunity to go completely wild a bit more often. I’ve been enjoying weekends and holidays up there for more than thirty years, so I’d already sussed out some great swimming spots (which will remain top secret!).
There’s nothing better after a day on the fells than to rejuvenate tired limbs in cold water, and with a sailing boat and a canoe in the inventory, to complement shanks’s pony and the (t)rusty bike, it’s easy to get into some remote spots where others might fear to tread water.
With RoSPA having taken more than a bit of flak from open water swimmers in the past, it is now time to disclose that the CEO and quite a few others of us RoSPA folk often go wet and wild. To be even more honest, I have swum in some uncommon places, including all of the Great Lakes (some kind of bet), Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan (seriously, painfully cold) and the Ganges at Varanasi (spiritually uplifting but bacterially soupy). Also, if you take to cold water with all the happy, panting enthusiasm of a Newfoundland dog, you might as well swim there too, and I have.
Of course at RoSPA, we know only too well that people should never swim where it is prohibited (e.g. some parks, rivers, reservoirs and gravel pits), should never be impaired by alcohol and should not swim directly after a meal. There are plenty of websites devoted to the joys of wild swimming, containing advice, information and recommending places to get wet.
And despite the image of bohemian freedom conjured up by wild swimming, there are quite a few pointers that I have learnt along the way, to suit my own appetite for “wild”. In Cumbria, my greatest fear is being swept away, so in a river if the current looks too fast, it is too fast and I look for somewhere more benign.
I also do a quick recce around the spot in case anything looks dangerous or has changed since the last visit – a boulder likely to tumble, a fallen tree or a jumble of rocks to get your foot trapped in – all need to be scoped out.
Swimming shoes are must-haves (light and easy to pack in a rucksack) to protect the feet and give some kind of grip on slimy rocks, as are trunks (middle-aged man alert!) because the alternative, though DH Lawrence-esque, could easily spook any passing walkers. Mountain Rescue has enough on its plate!
Submerged, waterlogged trees are as rigid as iron and very painful if a sharp branch hits a vital part. So I go in slowly and get my breath before swimming and if the water is really cold (I’m a wimpy April-October type), I aim to stay within my depth, swimming parallel to the shore, in case of cramp in those tired, fell-worn limbs.
Most importantly, I have never, ever gone alone, tempting though the solitude is, and whether my wife, one of my sons or a friend is with me, we always have a brief chat about the hazards and what to do in an emergency.
But taking these precautions is only a tiny impediment to the feeling that soon follows once the body settles down and the “hit” of that peaty, cold water washes over the soul, the pleasure heightened by the glorious Lakeland surroundings. It is pure magic, a cleansing, invigorating antidote to all the cares of the world.
When you emerge, reborn and renewed, everything in your life looks that little bit sharper and brighter, there is a tiny, involuntary smile on your lips and, for the rest of the day, you walk, springy with joy, on a soft cushion of fresh mountain air.
Tom Mullarkey, RoSPA’s Chief Executive