The Lake District: On Tour With The Strokes

Its mountain views draw tourists from across the globe, but there's another side to the Lake District few visitors ever see. Peter Conchie slips on his Speedos and enters the watery world of the swim trekkers
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The Independent Travel

Call me contrary, but when I think of the Lake District, it's mountains that come to mind rather than water. Wastwater is something to be gazed down upon from the summit of Sca Fell after hours of breathless ascent rather than sat beside in a deck-chair with a Thermos flask. Like many people who head for the hills and leave their cars thousands of feet below, my Lake District is more Wainwright than Wordsworth.

This impression of the lakes themselves as pleasant if sedentary places was challenged during a recent Lakes Weekender trip with SwimTrek, the world's only swimming-holiday operator. Swim-Trek is run by Simon Murie, an extraordinarily accomplished swimmer who has swum the English Channel and competed in a variety of distance events, including one that travels the 17km length of Windermere.

His company offers a variety of residential swimming holidays both in Great Britain and abroad,ranging from a two-day swim along the Thames to week-long trips to New Zealand's Bay of Islands, Croatia's Dalmatian Coast or a splash between the Greek Cyclades.

As Murie made the intro- ductions over a Friday-night pub supper at our hotel in Windermere, some of my fellow guests also emerged as solid swimmers. Many - including a fearsome female contingent from the City of Derby club - were strong club members, while others were veterans of previous SwimTrek holidays.

It began to dawn on me that I should have done more preparation, and I realised that I had only one option: what I might lack in technique, speed, fitness and experience, I would have to make up for in perseverance. It would be a rerun of the tortoise and the hare. In Speedos.

Our first stop was Buttermere. We disembarked from the minibus on a beautiful summer's morning and I walked barefoot on the sort of lakeside grass that feels like Astroturf, so closely has it been nibbled by grazing sheep. The night before, Simon had told us that the water temperature would be a pleasant 20C. No one believed him, of course, but he was right. After dipping a suspicious toe in the water, the rest of me followed.

As the stronger swimmers pulled away at the start of a 2km swim, I settled into the middle of the group and began an inelegant front crawl. After a kilometre or so, with Wainwright's favourite peak, Haystacks, barely any further behind, the support canoeists signalled a mid-lake rest, and tossed out blue plastic bottles containing a sweet, warm energy drink.

A quick chat and a word of encouragement and we were off again. As I swam along it felt strange to be experiencing the Lakes from a flat perspective, from a fish's rather than a bird's eye view.

When I looked down, the rays of the sun appeared to be shining upwards from the depths, penetrating the surface like refracted columns of light through a church window. It was strange, too, when taking a breath, sometimes to glimpse the mountains from beneath the surface, through a wobbly, watery prism.

Not for the last time during the weekend, Murie suddenly appeared alongside me, doing an expansive, massively wide-spanned breaststroke. He resembled an eagle who had taken swimming lessons. If I looked down more between breaths, he observed, the position of my head would bring my legs higher up in the water and into a better swimming position.

He also told me that my head was coming out of the water between breaths, and that I should imagine that the surface was a pillow on which I rested my cheek. Relax, put your head down and pretend to go to sleep; and I thought this swimming lark was supposed to be hard work.

After the first swim, we picnicked on the grass at the far end of Buttermere, Famous Five fashion, chomping fresh rolls, mature cheddar, fat slices of ham and juicy tomatoes, followed by tea and cake. We ate with the enthusiasm of those in the midst of serious physical endeavour, and got to know one another better. Alongside a Frenchman who had completed a 44-hour running race around the base of Mont Blanc, there was a doctor and her teenaged daughter (husband and son were also in the Lakes, sailing for the weekend), a former academic and, most remarkably, Richard, a Birmingham head teacher who was participating with a suspected broken arm.

After an ice cream in Buttermere, Murie led us up the hillside in the direction of Scale Force, the largest waterfall in the Lake District. Wordsworth des-cribed it, rather wordily, as "a fine chasm, with a lofty, though but slender, fall of water". Wainwright pithily noted that it had "a sheer leap of over 100 feet".

However you describe Scale Force, it was impressive, and we eased into the narrow, cool, mossy gorge, climbing over slippery rocks and taking a bracing power shower in the cascading water.

Refreshed, we set off for Low Ling Crag and a 3.5km swim along Crummock Water. On each swim, Murie offered shorter alternatives - beginning or ending at different points - and while the dames of Derby took up the sternest challenge each time, the more sensible recognised their limitations.

Foolishly, I chose to swim with the big fish, and towards the end of Crummock I was flagging. The canoe boys persuaded me that I was doing well - bless them for lying - and I put my head down for the last few hundred yards. I wobbled out of the shallows in need of a sit-down and a hot chocolate. Back at Winder-mere, we prepared for the next day with a decent dinner and a deep and beautiful night's sleep.

Swimmers are divided on the subject of wetsuits, but those with imperfect technique swear by them. A swim-specific wetsuit helps you in two respects: firstly, its smooth surface cuts down the drag between your skin and the water; secondly, buoyancy panels on the back of the thighs and buttocks mean you don't have to waste energy in keeping afloat, and they also set you in a better swimming position. Thus, on Sunday morning, fearful of the kilometres ahead, I squeezed and wriggled into figure-hugging rubber for a 2km crossing of Windermere.

The slower swimmers set off first, and we were soon overtaken by the East Midlands contingent. But thanks to the wonders of Neoprene, this time I was not an embarrassing distance behind, and 40 minutes later dripped to the shore. A couple in deck-chairs reading the papers looked on bemused as their previously peaceful beach was transformed into a changing room-cum-café.

Dry and warm, we hiked through Grizedale Forest for the last and toughest challenge of the weekend; a 3km swim along a section of Coniston Water under the indifferent gaze of the craggy Old Man. This was further than I had ever swum in one go, and we hadn't even had lunch yet.

I recalled Murie's advice and found a rhythm as I drifted over forests of weed in the shallows like a low-flying plane over a rainforest canopy. Before long I was halfway there, treading water and glugging something warm and possibly isotonic. Soon after that I could see the end of the lake, then the beach, then it was all over.

Ten minutes later, recharging with tea and a tuna sandwich, I reflected on two demanding days in the water. In the Lake District it was as much fun as I could have at sea level, and while I hadn't scaled the heights, I felt I'd climbed a mountain.

SwimTrek's Lakes Weekender costs £195 per person, which includes an evening of swim technique coaching, two day's swim guiding, b&b accommodation, and lunches. More details: 0208 696 6220, Peter Conchie travelled as a guest of Enjoy England on Virgin trains from London to Windermere. More details: