Train to Windermere, listening to the soundtrack from Into the Wild to ready myself for adventure! Bus to Coniston. One major holdup due to a caravan trying to squeeze past the bus on a road that my OS map defined as ‘generally more than 4 metres wide’, resulting in us having a slight altercation with a dry-stone wall. I managed to find the youth hostel with the friendliest staff in Britain and a stunning view of the Old Man of Coniston towering behind. Then I stocked up on bread rolls, Kit-Kats and blackberries from the hedgerow outside for the next few days.
The next day dawned bright and clammy. After a hearty veggie breakfast, I donned the sun-cream and set off for Tarn Hows, a nearby stretch of water formed in the nineteenth century by J G Marshall to make his land appear more picturesque. I arrived, sweaty, in time for a pre-lunch swim. Although I had visited Tarn Hows with my family years previously, I had never swum in it before, nor had anyone else I’d heard of. However, inspired by the supposedly growing popularity of wild-swimming or, as it is known by some, tarn-bagging, I marched round the side of the Tarn in search of a suitable launching spot. This involved some off-the-beaten-path exploration, where I discovered some mushrooms that looked like they’d emerged from a Disney cartoon and, eventually, a secluded spot to strip off and leave my stuff.
The water, as expected, was freezing but I waded bravely in until I was half submerged and then launched completely in. Fortunately I had chosen a warm day- 19 degrees and sunny. The sun had already warmed the top few inches of water and so by swimming on the surface it was possible to stay almost warm. After a minute or so of being in the water, my body triumphed over the cold and it became comfortable to swim. I struck out towards the middle, enjoying the reflections on the water, the sun on my face, lilypads and the fluttering of blue damselflies. I reached an island covered in flowering heather and climbed out onto a rock for a rest, gazing at the surrounding mountains. I heard a few exclamations of hikers-by on the opposite path. Swimming back to my clothes, I had the entire tarn to myself with the exception of an over-friendly Golden Retriever, who, living up to his name, chased enthusiastically after the somewhat alarmed ducks.
Once changed, I navigated my way back to the path and wandered along looking for a lunch spot and attracting the stares of walkers in t-shirts and shorts confused by my fleece and woolly hat. (A previous wild swimming experience with my friend Ella in a wash pool on a fell in Cumbria had taught me that hypothermia was not particularly pleasant.) Squashed sandwiches had never tasted so good! After an afternoon swim in another part of the tarn, I returned to the YHA, tired but immensely satisfied.
On the second full-day of my stay I walked up to Brown Pike, over Buck Pike, Dow Crag and round to the Old Man of Coniston, reaching a height of 803 metres above sea level before descending through the disused slate mines and quarries. I had stunning views of Lake Coniston, Windermere and several tarns and reservoirs. The sun finally came out atop the Old Man where I sat and relished several chocolate bars.
Holidaying on your own can be enormous fun- it gives you the freedom to choose exactly where to go, what to do and be able to hike at your own pace. It has also encouraged me to be more independent and can be a much-needed break from the noise and drama of the city. But enjoying being alone can easily turn into loneliness. This holiday, however, I was able to avoid that due to the wonderful friendliness of others in the youth hostel. I met a white woman from South Africa who told me her experience of living under Apartheid, a couple of intellectuals from Oxford uni, a hipster with an SLR, a guy attempting to climb all the Wainwright peaks and another who was practicing for a mountain guide test. And we ended up enjoying a game of Pictionary together. Everyone was generally impressed/ thought I was loony for wild swimming- “but… isn’t it freezing?!”
The last day in the Lakes, I spent in Windermere. After wandering around the village for a bit, I went in search of a tarn. After finding one fenced off, I climbed a gate and wandered through shoulder-high bracken in search of a secluded edge of Lake Windermere itself. A sudden commotion in the foliage announced the presence of wild deer. Once I’d found the lake, I had a quick swim, staying relatively close to the edge for fear of the tourist boats that snake up and down its length. The water’s edge was stony and sloped gradually deeper which was good for wading in, but was soon replaced with thick mud and weeds that grasped at my ankles. Proud of having bagged the largest lake in England, I changed quickly and climbed a tree to hang my towel from a branch to dry in the sun. I then scoffed my lunch and lay dozing in a tree, listening to the birds, with autumn leaves falling on my face.
After another swim, I found some hedgerows and picked several pounds worth of blackberries and elderberries to make into jam. Then I hopped on a bus back to Windermere station and said goodbye to the Lake District for another year.
An excellent article about tarnbagging: