Travel Muse

Going Wild Swimming in the Lake District

Molli Tyldesley describes the benefits and her recent experience of wild swimming

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Image Credit: Molli Tyldesley

Brits love to go abroad. So much so that in pre-Covid-19 times in 2019, there were 93.1 million visits overseas by UK residents. And I am no exception to this rule. I often spent the year dreaming of my summer holiday, waiting for the moment I could hop on a plane, ferry or the Channel Tunnel, and spend a few weeks in Europe, soaking up the sunshine.

However, as we all know, over the past eighteen months or so, travelling abroad has been very difficult, if not impossible. In the first lockdown, as I’m sure many people will agree, despite being lucky enough to have a garden to spend time in, I struggled with the fact that I could not venture more than a few kilometres from my house. Especially living in Manchester, where my daily walk or run was down a dual carriageway, rather than being in a pleasant and open green space.

Spending time outside and in nature has always been important to me. But I always got the impression that the UK was a rather boring place to do this. I longed to travel to distant places; to see wildlife on safari in Kenya, or swim the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

However, as soon as restrictions eased and things became more relaxed, my friends and I decided we wanted to explore the country we had spent our whole lives living in. And we were very pleasantly surprised.

At home, I live about an hour away from the Lake District. It’s about a two hour drive or three hour train journey from York. The Lakes is a popular tourist destination; in fact, it’s the most visited national park in the UK. Home to England’s tallest mountain, Scafell Pike, and its largest lake, Lake Windermere, the Lakes has no shortage of natural beauty. The area is even known for inspiring famous poets, including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

During our visit, a rare warm and sunny day in the north of England inspired my friends and I to go swimming. In Manchester, there aren’t many options for outdoor swimming - unless you fancy jumping into the ship canal, which unsurprisingly, we didn’t!

Until this point, other than the occasional dip in the sea, I’d never really been open water swimming in the UK before. One of my friends had been a few times, and therefore she knew a few places that the group of us could go to for our first wild swimming experience.

We drove quite far north into the Lake District, with the journey taking just over two hours in total. One of the great things about the UK is that nothing is too far away: you are able to effectively drive anywhere in the country within one day. On the route we experienced extremely steep hills and winding country lanes, which at times we were unsure whether my friend’s thirteen plate Toyota Aygo would be able to cope with.

Once we made it there in one piece, we parked on a grassy verge and set off on our walk through Eskdale, one of the Lakes’ most beautiful valleys. We walked for about 45 minutes, surrounded by nothing but grass, rocks and the open sky.

The beauty spot exceeded expectations. There were only a handful of people around, and the water looked crystal clear. In places, it was deep enough to jump into, and we saw people, young and old, taking the plunge to jump from ledges into the pools below. There were also shallow pools which the River Eske was flowing through quickly, creating little waterfalls here and there. My friends and I made our way up the valley, dipping into various pools as we went. The water was freezing, but we eased ourselves in - it is important to do this, for health and safety reasons - and eventually we got used to the cold temperatures and were able to jump into the deeper pools. For my friends and I, it became one of our favourite and most memorable experiences together.

It was not just my friends and I who decided to go wild swimming and loved it. Wild swimming has grown in popularity across the UK during the coronavirus pandemic. As travelling abroad was no longer an option, and many indoor pools were closed, lots of people turned to a different form of swimming. In an Outdoor Swimmer’s magazine report, searches for the term “wild swimming” increased 94 percent between 2019 and 2020. And the Lake District is undoubtedly one of the best places to do this.

So, why did wild swimming become so popular? There are multiple physical and mental health benefits to outdoor, cold water swimming. Coming from a family of avid runners, I have long been told by my dad that getting into an ice bath - or into the cold sea, if accessible - after a run is brilliant for recovery. Certainly, cold water helps ease muscle soreness, meaning it is a good option after exercise or when injured. Outdoor swimming can also boost your immune system, reduce pain and inflammation, and is good for the skin and hair.

Furthermore, wild swimming can be beneficial to your mental health. Swimming in cold water can help to manage stress, anxiety and depression, as well as just generally clearing your head. It releases endorphins, or ‘happy hormones’, similar to those released when you do exercise. According to the BBC website, researchers at Cambridge University have even discovered that cold water swimming may help to protect the brain from degenerative diseases such as dementia.

If these reasons cannot persuade you to give wild swimming a try, it is also a perfect chance to reconnect with nature. I’ve always enjoyed swimming - I used to swim regularly at my local gym, and I love going into the sea when abroad. However, swimming in a pool and the sea often involves being surrounded by dozens or even hundreds of people, as well as shops and restaurants. There is something special about feeling like you’re in the middle of nowhere, with nothing around you except greenery.

I’ve always been someone who has preferred going for walks in places of natural beauty, rather than in the city, but actually getting into the water makes for an even more immersive experience in nature rather than simply going for a walk or a run in the countryside.

Sadly, however, in a report released by the Environment Agency, all English rivers were found to have failed pollution tests. Key sources of pollution include raw sewer discharges from water companies and animal agriculture runoffs. My experience in the Lake District only emphasised further to me how crucial it is for us to keep our rivers clean. We can only hope, in the light of COP26, that we will see some change in the way our waterways are treated so that we can continue to enjoy them now and preserve them for future generations.

Hopefully, one day I can visit the places I have always dreamed of experiencing and travel the world. However, my travels to the Lake District have helped me to realise that our countryside is one of the things that makes Britain so Great.

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