Testing the water

Sara Barnes
Freelance writer who loves swimming in wild and not so wild water.


It’s been a funny winter up here in the Lake District: lots of rain, too much wind and not enough sun. All of that has combined to keep the water temperatures in the lakes low, but not really, really cold. It feels like it’s been hovering around the 5 degrees forever, unlike my first winter swimming through in 2017, when my swim buddies and I regularly braved 3.6 degrees in the water and -3 air temperature. That dry, sunny, cold weather was beautiful and inspirational.

But, for me, it’s not about the temperature of the water, or the weather conditions. I’m not training for an ice mile or to swim the English Channel. I don’t carry a thermometer in my swim bag, but rely on my own cold sensors and, to be honest, they’re pretty reliable and can detect the difference between above or below 5 degrees. Outdoor swimming for me is about getting outside and appreciating the stunning landscape I’m lucky enough to live in. Even if I have to go and do a solo dip I try to get down to my favourite lake, Crummock Water, three or four times a week. Winter swimming adds an element of risk, challenge and camaraderie that is different to, but not necessarily better than, swimming during the rest of the year. It extends the experiential element and deepens the existing bond between swim buddies.

A couple of weeks ago I met up with one such swim buddy and her husband at Buttermere for her first outdoor swim since October. Incredibly, the sun was shining. 

I did something I don’t often do: I tested the water temperature with my hand – it felt slightly naughty and vaguely duplicitous, but above all, totally inaccurate. Whether it was the warmth of the sunshine or the colour of the water I sensed a change in my environment – a change for the better. Why does spring always creep up in the shadow of storms and then take us by surprise?

It took a bit of nerve for my friend to walk into the greeny-blue without too much swearing, but she did and we swam for about 3 minutes out of the small bay and back to the shallows.

As she sculled around back within her depth, basking in the sunshine, I noticed the expression on her face had changed from uncertainty to blissed out contentment. She’d fallen back in love with cold water.

I could have stayed in a bit longer, but I knew it was the warmth of the sun teasing me. I always err on the side of caution about how long I stay in for so I reluctantly waded back over the slippery stones to the beach where Sue was struggling with her changing robe. I grabbed the pointy hood, which made it easier for her to work out which hole to put her head through and which her arms. Was it confusion from being just a little too cold? Or excitement at having got back in the water?

Sitting on the beach post swim, sipping our hot drink, we contemplated how once the water started warming up both our swim kit and our swims would change. For me I said it would become more sociable in some ways, although not in others. Winter dips can be incredibly bonding as you brave the elements en masse and giggle at the incongruity of stripping off to immerse yourselves in cold water, but there’s not much time for chat as everyone finds their own way out of their comfort zone and then hops about warming up afterwards before dashing off.

On the contrary, in the summer, although shore time is often more relaxed with time to chat, being in the warmer water feels so delicious that, if you do heads down front crawl, you just want to stretch out and glide effortlessly along enjoying the feel of the catch, the power of your body and the tranquility of the blue-green below. It is summer heads up breaststroke that brings a magical camaraderie, where filters break down and a stranger becomes a friend. Having options on a beautiful summer’s day is what I am looking forward to most.

The choice of swim locations opens up too, along with a change in contents of your swim bag. The number of layers I’ll hastily squirm into, still half wet, will gradually start to reduce and I’ll no longer bring a couple of spare thermal layers; the extra bobble hat will probably be dispensed with too. I’ll still need my £3.99 bright pink slippers and supermarket bathmat – the slippers will only go back in the cupboard in May. A thermos of hot drink will remain essential until the water temperature is around 17 degrees, which, last summer, never happened in these deeper northern lakes. Dressing post swim may become less dramatic, no chasing after blown-away knickers, tow floats won’t need deflating or tethering down and when I put all my clothes in a neat, easy-to-put-on-again order, they’ll still be in the same neat pile after my swim. 

Once the water temperature gets to around 7 degrees neoprene gloves and swim socks may go back in the cupboard too – although in fairness the swim socks may stay on for a little longer to make getting in across the stony lakeshore easier. I really love swimming with bare feet and hands, being able to feel the water trailing through my fingers, wriggling my toes and having four less things to rinse and dry later.

Head gear changes too. In the Lake District, there are no rules about wearing a swim cap at all times so the safety cover can spot you, so I tend to wear a bobble hat in winter, or a neoprene headband, and in summer nothing on my head. Again, for me, this is the ultimate freedom, total immersion and minimum faff. Now I’ve learnt heads down front crawl though I will wear a swim cap and goggles, because there’s nothing worse than long hair getting wrapped round your face obscuring your vision or scaring the pants off you as it wafts around like an underwater creepy crawlie.

So, now I’m starting to dream of carting a light Gorilla bucket around with me, I can’t wait for spring and summer swimming.