Swimming Wild in the Lake District – a free extract
- Monday 4 May 2020
© Stewart Smith
When Suzannna Cruickshank first came to the Lake District as a novice hillwalker, there was a wealth of information on where to go and what to climb but when her attention turned to swimming, she struggled to find the same level of detail, so she set out to do her own research. Published in April, Swimming Wild in the Lake District, is a guide to fifteen lakes covering the best fifty swimming spots in the Lake District National Park. The book will include seasonal advice, ecological information and tips on where to go and where to avoid.
Keep reading for Suzanna's guide to swimming in Grasmere.
With its central location and inextricable link to William Wordsworth, Grasmere is probably the busiest village in the Lake District. It is a key stop on many a tour itinerary of the Lake District, drawing visitors by the coach load for the cultural history as well as the views. The surroundings might lack the stature and grandeur Buttermere or Ullswater but Grasmere more than makes up for that with pretty paths through dreamy broadleaf woodlands all beneath miniature craggy hills. The picturesque setting is effortlessly beautiful, complimented by a perfect chocolate box village. Though busy, you can still find a quiet corner to yourself if you know where to look.
Grasmere and its smaller neighbour Rydal Water are two of the shallowest lakes in the Lake District. The water here tends to be among the first to warm up and stays relatively mild well into autumn. Fed predominantly by the River Rothay and Wray Gill the water is soft and tea-coloured in the depths. The best swimmable water lies south of the island.
My favourite time to swim in Grasmere is when the chill of autumn is descending. I love the first view of the lake as I approach from the north over the top of Dunmail Raise. It is nestled in a hollow of low fells and often holds early morning mist on top of the water making for a wonderfully atmospheric dip. You might see fishermen lining the shore near the road, or Martin from Banerigg Guest House striking out for his daily swim from his private jetty.
The watershed above Grasmere is made up of much older volcanic rocky peaks than the softer, lower sedimentary rock directly around the lake and village. The taller peaks don’t hold much sway here though. They are rather distant, and the character of the lake is defined by ancient woodlands that cloak the low fells and surround much of the lake. It makes Grasmere feel quite private. Here the trees take centre stage ahead of the hills and in autumn they steal the show completely.
With the exception of the private land around the north basin (not to mention the swans and weeds – more on these later) there are plenty of easy opportunities for a swim around Grasmere. It always strikes me as a very convivial place to enjoy a dip, whether you fancy an attention-seeking splash from the busy main beach or a surreptitious dip in a wooded bay. The distance out to the island from Loughrigg Terrace Beach is just under 800 metres, giving an opportunity to clock up a reasonable distance or simply enjoy a paddle in the shallows. There is a place for everyone on this little lake.
© Stewart Smith
Grasmere Swimming Locations
Where the A591 runs alongside the lake there are a couple of small lay-bys; there is one shortly after leaving Grasmere village, the other one is beyond a sharp bend just past Banerigg Guest House. Park up and cross the road to the tarmac footpath along the wall above the lake. In some places you can easily hop over the wall to small beaches and get straight into the water. It's possible to hop over the wall and into the water here in a couple of places but in the main there is not much to be gained from fighting through the undergrowth. This section of the lake is also popular with fishermen, especially early in the day, so choose your swim spot carefully to avoid getting tangled in their lines!
Close to Banerigg Guest House is a viewpoint with two wrought iron benches overlooking the lake. Back in the 1800s there were plans for several houses along this stretch of road, each with its own private jetty or lake frontage. Work commenced on a semicircular terrace viewpoint over the lake but eventually the only house that was built was Banerigg Guest House, saving the ancient bluebell wood from being cut down. The viewpoint is still there, with a slender gap in the low wall and a wooden bar across the gap. Climb over the bar to negotiate the slate steps down to the water – there is no beach here and the last step hovers precipitously above the water. It is a unique and committing place for a swim but with a with a superb view of Helm Crag.
Penny Rock Wood and Loughrigg Terrace Beach
The path from the car park south of the A591 at White Moss is a Miles Without Stiles route. The initial path along the River Rothay and through a meadow is suitable for all. The continuation into Penny Rock Wood has a steeper incline and stone steps down to the bridge crossing the river to the lake shore. Loughrigg Terrace Beach is a fine place to swim and paddle to your hearts content. The water is very shallow right up to the weir and you would struggle to get out of your depth in usual conditions. Keep an eye on children around the fast flowing water on the lip of the weir though.
Understandably, a great and easily accessible beach like this gets quite busy. Penny Rock Wood is much quieter, and you can easily find a sheltered bay amongst the trees to slip surreptitiously into the water.
One sunny Monday afternoon I counted twenty or thirty people milling around on Loughrigg Terrace Beach and so continued to a shady narrow strip of beach under the edge of Deerbolts Wood. I had this corner of the lake to myself save for an inquisitive mallard, who swam with me for a short distance. The water is a bit deeper here and the lake bed falls away quickly. Underfoot the stones are on the sharp and angular side and pretty uncomfortable for bare feet.
Continuing round the lake after Deerbolts Wood is around half a mile of very pleasant bridleway. There are plenty of places to take a dip along here. My favourite is next to the tumble down boat house, but you can find your own on one of the many little beaches along this stretch.
Roughly half the shoreline is privately owned or inaccessible. To the north the shore is edged by reeds and marsh, beyond that are pastoral fields and Grasmere village. The north-west corner of the lake towards the Faeryland Tea Gardens is the shallowest part of the lake. It is patrolled by a group of territorial swans who do not take kindly to swimmers straying into their patch. Around the outflow of the River Rothay the gently shelving edges reach a depth of around two metres, most of which is heavy with silt and blanket weed as I found out on a research swim round the island with Wayne Singleton, director of Jogging Pals. Blithely ignoring the warning signs (swans, shallow water) we swam to within fifteen metres of the island and found that we could stand on springy mud. Undeterred we carried on. The water got shallower, and then weedy, until we were swimming through what can only be described as bright green hair. As we churned up the silt, putrid gas was released smelling like rotten eggs left out in the sun. We tried spreading out away from the island, but it was no use. We were well and truly ensnared in the weed and silt. It was a traumatic twenty minutes or so before we managed to extricate ourselves and swim for home towards Loughrigg Terrace Beach during which time the only words we exchanged were punctuated by some fairly robust swearing.
© Stewart Smith
Grasmere Technical Information
Maximum depth: 21.5 metres
Average depth: 7.7 metres
Length: 1500 metres
Maximum width: 600 metres
Primary inflows: River Rothay, Wray Gill
Outflow: River Rothay
Grasmere is well served by the 555 bus, which runs between Lancaster and Keswick, with frequent buses in peak season. The A591, which is the main road through the Lake District, runs along the eastern edge of Grasmere. There is ample parking at the two car parks at White Moss; payment is by number plate recognition meters. The car park north of the A591 necessitates crossing the busy A591 road on a bend. You can walk directly to the lake from the car park south of the A591, and it has dedicated disabled parking spaces. Further parking is available in Grasmere Village, a short walk from the lake.
Faeryland Tea Gardens are right on the lake with rowing boats to hire (but no swimming). There is an ample choice of hostelries, cafes and pubs in Grasmere village. My favourite is The Jumble Room.
General notes on Grasmere
The water is deepest to the south of the island. To the north lie those twin ghouls of swimmer folklore: swans and weeds. Take heed of my ill-fated swim with Wayne, and the trauma that will stay with us forever. The north basin is best viewed… from a boat!