Meet the man who swam across the Lake District

Taking the plunge

Taking the plunge - Credit: Archant

Most men reaching 60 settle for cake and a card. Bury’s John Mather decided to swim all 17 lakes and he wrote a book about his experience.

John in the icy depths of Wast Water

John in the icy depths of Wast Water - Credit: Archant

THIS was an adventure both challenging and memorable. It also made me aware of both the beauty and fragility of this wonderful land.

It was my 60th birthday and I decided to celebrate by swimming the length of all 17 lakes contained within the English Lake District, little realising the time, effort or the planning involved. These 17 range in size from Brotherswater, the smallest which is just under a mile long, to Windermere, which is ten and a half miles.

I did eventually complete the task even though it took me three years, starting in June 2014 and finishing in October 2016. I began with some of the smaller lakes in an attempt to build up my strength and stamina.

Even though I was rewarded with tantalising glimpses of red squirrel, cormorants, woodpeckers and deer, surely nothing compared with a chance sighting of Bassenthwaite Lake’s resident ospreys in majestic flight.

Tackling the 7.5 mile long Ullswater

Tackling the 7.5 mile long Ullswater - Credit: Archant

Open water swimming may be proving very popular in the Lake District but it comes with considerable risks. I might consider myself a strong swimmer, but I really struggled on a section of my Windermere swim. That hurt.

Everything started so well. Three friends joined me on my first swim in Loweswater, a mile long lake situated in the remote north west. Bright swimming caps were fitted and goggles adjusted as we pushed off from the northern end. It is difficult to convey the silence; that all embracing dry stone wall to wall silence that literally took my breath away. Impetuously, I powered into a full blooded racing stroke for the final, vital few strokes.

We next turned our attention to Buttermere, a near neighbour. It’s no wonder it is a mecca for wild water swimmers because it’s situated in one of the most dramatic valleys in the Lakes. There is something gloriously elemental and reassuring with being on water and surrounded by such mighty peaks.

I never anticipated our third swim on Grasmere would prove to be so taxing or unpleasant! Enchanted by its blue waters, we hadn’t bargained for the bed to be so shallow or silt-laden around the northern side of the central isle. Unswimmable, in other words. It begs the question: can there really be a problem with the water quality of some of our lakes?

John Mather

John Mather - Credit: Archant

Having tested ourselves with three of the smaller lakes, we turned our attention to the 2.5 mile Crummock Water. I endured a fierce headwind that whipped waves on the initial half mile but normal swimming conditions were restored once we rounded Hause Point and headed up the sheltered northern half of the lake.

I was really pleased that my niece, Laura, wanted to go open water swimming in Rydal Water, a most beguiling and romantic lake. The water was now warm enough to dispense with wetsuits and we swam comfortably just in “cossies”. Our plan to swim towards the western end of the lake was abruptly halted when I realised that I was heading straight to a swan’s nest, a jumbled pile of sticks with gleaming owner standing guard! I completed my first year of swims by taking part in an end-to-end swim of 5.25 mile long Coniston Water.

Derwent Water is one of my favourite lakes, and it proved a glorious three mile swim. Bassenthwaite Lake proved a salutary lesson on the perils of outdoor swimming as we underestimated the four mile length of the lake and also misjudged the final part of our route. We found ourselves sprawling in shallow waters and grounded in a weave of infinite New Zealand pigmyweed. Talk about being stranded up a side creek without a proverbial paddle!

I commenced my third year by swimming the challenging waters of Wast Water. There is a savagery about the inspirational setting and, although only three miles long, its waters have a fearsome reputation for being the coldest and the deepest of the lakes.

Challenging Waters, John Mather

Challenging Waters, John Mather - Credit: Archant

I promoted my Ullswater swim as a means of celebrating the recovery of the Lake District following Storm Desmond and also took the opportunity to raise over a £1,000 for Wigton Baths Trust, damaged in the storm. I was under no illusion as to the challenge – many regard the 7.5 mile long Ullswater as more of an inland sea, such is its reputation for harbouring capricious winds and contrary currents.

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It was fitting that I was joined by Sam, a lifeguard at Wigton Baths, as we set off from Patterdale at the southern end. We were supported by my niece and nephew, Laura and Robbie, rowing a hired fishing boat along with Caroline and sea kayak. Caroline’s knowledge of the lake and advice proved absolutely fundamental to the success of the day.

This proved to be most strenuous and enjoyable swim of my challenge. Talk about stepping out of the frying pan and into the fire: no sooner had we crossed Howtown Bay’s animated waters and reached the “safety” of the far shore than we were buffeted by a fierce squall that was as intense as it was short lived. I had long been swimming on empty and was delighted to find a crowd of well-wishers cheering and applauding as I headed for my landing.

Swimming the 10.5 miles of Windermere, England’s longest and busiest lake, wasn’t going to be easy. And if Ullswater can be likened to a sea, then Windermere must be regarded, and, more importantly, respected as an ocean.

I really hadn’t the heart to attempt to swim the entire lake in one go and so I planned to complete it over three manageable stages over consecutive days.

Advised to swim from south to north, I set off from National Trust Fell Foot Park, accompanied by Andy and his canoe once again. We followed the plunging and densely wooded eastern shoreline of the southern basin for three or so miles to Beech Hill. I was overwhelmed by the vastness of watery expanse.

Conditions on the final 2km were some of the worst I have ever encountered in open water swimming. The sky darkened, the wind rose and the rain plummeted with an intensity and ferocity that was truly frightening. Could we find our landing spot? I lost sight of Andy more than once as he struggled to find our shingle beach.

I could hardly believe how sunny and calm the next day could be in contrast. Barely a breeze disturbed the calmest of lake waters and I quickly recovered from a really rough patch at the start of this swim. I had to, because I required all my wits, and speed, to negotiate the crowded waters mid lake, complete with busy Windermere Car Ferry and any number of isles. A wonderful afternoon developed as I eventually gained the clear and blue open waters of the lake’s northern basin.

I needed to muster all my resolve and something else to survive those surging waves mid lake on the Sunday afternoon to complete my swim across the top of the lake to Waterhead. This surely had to be one of my sternest tests of stamina in the entire lake challenge.

I was so glad that Tom could join me for my final lake swim in Elterwater as he had accompanied me on our very first foray into Loweswater.

Ironically, I completed my challenge by walking around the privately owned Esthwaite Water, nestling in a timeless enclave of ancient broadleaf woodland and tumbling sheep pasture. Sadly, swimming is not allowed and very little of the shore is accessible to the general public. And here is the rub – that Beatrix Potter’s favourite lake should remain in private hands and access is denied to nearly all but fee-paying anglers. It does not seem right.

I am very proud of what I have achieved. I have swum a total of 40 miles, far greater than if I’d swum the English Channel. I openly admit that my project would never even have got off the ground had it not been for the advice and encouragement of countless people and the generosity of many organisations.

I have also been very fortunate to see and experience the Lake District in many of its majestic moods and glories.

about the author

John Mather was born in Bury in 1954 and now lives near Carlisle. He is a part time chartered civil engineer having spent a 40-year career in the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges.

He learned to swim at Egerton Baths, Bolton, in his early teens. As well as swimming in many outdoor locations in the UK and overseas, he is particularly proud of swimming in all the pools in Greater Manchester and writing an accompanying book.

He volunteers for the Lake District National Park Authority and occasionally helps on archaeological excavations.

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His new book Challenging Waters, the Diary of a Lake District Swimmer by J.C Mather is due to be published in March 2018 by Sublime Swimming (ISBN 978-0-9955990-0-0)

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