I had agreed to it, and happily so. It sounded like a great idea. Right up until 7am on Tuesday morning when I thought: the water is about 12 degrees and this bed is really warm and cosy. I knew swimming outdoors would either boost my energy for the day, or finish me off and be my undoing for the week. But, by 7.30am, shafts of bright sunlight were squeezing through the slats of my bedroom blinds, heralding another glorious day in the Lake District.
The evening before, we had walked into the hills from Skelwith Bridge along the riverbank, where families fished and paddled and floated; children throwing balls to dogs while dad slept under oak trees, shaded from the evening sun. It was like something out of an Enid Blyton book from my youth. I listened hard in case I could head Julian beckoning for George and Dick to ‘take a gallop up Crinkle Crags before supper,’ while ordering Anne to stay back, clean the tent, wash the socks in the river, peel the boiled eggs (because they’d be jolly hungry when they got back) and feed Timmy the dog. The gender stereotyping from my ‘literary’ youth didn’t seem to have made it into the new century, as I watched two little girls fearlessly cannonball themselves into a pool in the river, complete with exploding sound effects. All around, people looked healthy and happy, the bronzed tribe of Ambleside could pass for Italians in Lake Como at mid-summer, rather than Cumbrian hill folk on a May bank holiday.
Yes, the morning light promised more of the same, and the tiny remnant of nervousness (and maybe laziness) I’d had in leaving the comfort of my bed to go jump in a lake, was quickly evaporating. By 9am I was one of a dozen low-key adventure seekers, all assembled in a field at the confluence of the Rothay and Brathay rivers at the north end of Lake Windermere. There’s no quicker way to get to know someone, to lose your inhibitions, to drop all barriers, than each person having to wrestle inelegantly into a wetsuit while trying to avoid falling like a one-legged skittle into patches of nettles and cowclap. It felt like a workout before we even hit the water. Bright caps donned (so as to be visible to boats), an outline of our planned route explained to us, a pact made to stay together – and off we went. The unusually extended period of heat in May had warmed up the water, which (in a wetsuit) was really pleasant. I waded out, chest depth, from where I pushed off into a deeper channel, took a few strokes, head under, and, in a matter of seconds, I wanted to be no-place else.
Our outward swim was in the direction of the flow of the river. “Don’t set off too fast,” our guide told us. There was no chance of that, as I bobbed along at the back, stopping to look all around me. Small oaks were growing horizontally out of rocks on the riverbank; an impossible feat as there seemed to be no soil there. Sometimes old fallen trees stuck out dangerously from the water, one looked like a crocodile, we gave it a wide berth. Swimming head down, the mossy rocks below the surface were all green and yellow velvet. We swam into the north end of Lake Windermere, just as far as Barthay Bay on the outer edge, yet far enough to be close to one of the big cruisers passing, to see how small and insignificant our bobbing yellow swimming caps were in comparison. On the way back I was getting tired. The wind had picked up a little, and we were swimming into it, against the flow of the river. I stopped for a breather and admired a female goosander – her crazy orange head of punk hair, looked like it has been caught in a wind tunnel and been fixed that way. Attached to her, in a little trail, were about ten chicks, shimmying along the edge, unperturbed by us. The ducklings took turns, three at a time, to piggy-back onto mum, taking a breather. That’s what I needed for my last 50 metres, a tow from a goosander, but she was going in the opposite direction and had her hands (or back) full. And the highlight of it all? Well, isn’t it always sitting on a stonewall afterwards with a flask of tea and fruit loaf and talking it over? Letting those memoires settle in like fallen trees sinking deep into the riverbed.