Waymaking: Taking the Plunge by Anna Fleming

Published: 29th September 2019

Extracted with permission for 'Wild Words' - our celebration of the language and words that connect people with nature and wild places

Sitting by a lake one moonless night something caught my eye. A small dark mass the size of a soap bar appeared on the surface, standing out against the lake’s dim sheen. It moved with determined speed, efficiently cutting through the waters with barely any discernable sound or ripples. I scrambled up for a closer look, but the creature disappeared into the darker shadows. There I glimpsed other lumps moving low and purposefully within the water. Instinct told me these liminal beings were frogs.

I like to think I am no stranger to my own amphibiousness: often when I meet a body of water, be it river, lake or sea, I immerse myself. But, unlike those frogs’ dignified power through the water, my dips are rather more raucous affairs. The initial few steps and first plunge carry the full force of crossing a threshold. I teeter on the edge between exultancy and horror. With desperate immediacy my skin tightens, breath shortens and heart pounds, and then, generally, my body adjusts and I temporarily achieve amphibian ease. Sometimes the water is too cold for this. Snow meltwater has the force of fire against my skin, and can only be withstood for the shortest of dips. But whether a short icy plunge or a lengthy bathe, each swim brings an exhilarating high that cleanses, refreshes and renews body and soul. It is a rush of vital living.

The diluvial desire is not for everyone. My dad for example cannot swim and prefers to keep his feet warm and dry. This is a shame, not just because these people miss out on the cold-water exhilaration, but each submersion to the frog’s-eye-view also brings a further venture into unusual places, perspectives and encounters.

I first came to love the illicit thrill of freshwater bathing in a quarry pool. My mum took us there after school, at weekends or on holidays. The pool sits within a basin, and a short scramble down a steep gravelly slope brings you to the water’s edge. Entering the pool, you find yourself in the midst of a rich reforming ecosystem. It is not overtly welcoming: every year the pond weeds spread further across the pool, and dragonflies – small electric blue damselflies and larger striped hawkers – dive-bomb the swimmer. From the murky depths sometimes a boulder or the metalwork of some ancient rusting vehicle would loom, which, combined with the towering cliffs and prehistoric peregrine calls echoing around, could give a sinister feel to the place. But in summer the water had a warm silky feel that caressed the skin. Here I learnt the indulgence of a skinny dip. Unlike my shrieking skinny dips with family and friends as a youngster in the Atlantic – gasping against the cold and giggling at the strange fun – this pool welcomed the body. As I sank in, the water dissolved the awkward ungainliness of my changing adolescent body, drifting in temporary fluidity I began to be aware of, and even tentatively appreciate, my own physicality.

That post-industrial site taught me some early lessons on the interrelationship between man, nature and ecosystems. Unlike the sheep-stripped hills and moorland, here one saw nature squat and reclaim the land: a process of diversification. The first settlers, silver birch, rosebay willowherb, valerian and brambles marched across the earth, covering spoil tips, ditches and embankments. At the edge of the workings goat willow and hazel also spread, concealing the old limekiln and quarry buildings that gradually disappeared and decomposed more each year. Sadly though, the quarry owners’ benign neglect did not extend to every act of repossession, and the place was subject to an ongoing land dispute.

The company deemed swimming an illegal act of trespass, which they insisted upon through increasingly numerous signage. Further signs and life buoys warned that we humans were in mortal danger near the ‘deep water’. In fairness, someone had died swimming there. He was an older man whose heart had failed at the shock of the cold water. This tragedy however did not restrain his daughter’s love of the water. A legendary clash took place when she returned to the pool the next week. A passer-by spotted her, and called down, ‘you shouldn’t swim here; don’t you know someone died here last week?’ Our friend’s terse roar: ‘Yeah! That was my dad!’ put a swift end to that discussion. Generally though, resistance was quieter than this dispute. In my mind it is typified by the local women who disregarded each new deterrent in order to share the joy of swimming with their children and friends. Ultimately, these years of dispute, trespass and stolen pleasure came abruptly to an end when the quarry owners finally found an effective preventative: a two-metre barbed-metal fence encircling the entire pool. The pondweed now covers the surface, and we have lost a beautiful spot.

Curiously, the next step in my swimming journey centred on Liverpool – a city that is not renowned for its clean open-water swimming spots. Whilst I have friends who have swum in the docks and park lakes, for some reason that water never appealed to me; my key discovery during those tumultuous university years was Britain’s mountains. The half-crazed waterbabies of my university mountaineering club introduced me to the unexpected potential of wilder water. One damp, misty, miserable October day stands out when, rather than face the inevitable chilling drenching on the mountains, we traipsed through the forestry above Betws-y-Coed. At Llyn Elsi, Adam (a group member with a fearsome reputation for swimming in unfavourable conditions) stripped off before all our incredulity for a staunch swim. His performance did not end in the water, however. He met the challenge of drying himself with a remarkable solution. In the absence of a towel he did not sacrifice his clothing: he tucked a rolled-up pair of socks inside his wet boxer shorts, donned boots and rucksack, and marched back to the village below. Our laughter, which had dried off by the time we reached the A5, renewed itself whenever we saw the vivid play of emotions rush across the face of every passing carload.

After years of such adventures (weekend and holiday trips to Britain’s high places, fiercely soaking up every moment before the exhausted journey home) this year I moved to the Lake District. Living and working in the place has dramatically changed my relationship to it, as I see the sacred adventure playground become imbued with the grainy texture of everyday life. My nearest lake, Grasmere, does not always feel like the ‘wildest’ place: a busy road spans one edge, broad footpaths lie on the other, you can hire boats or take the scenery in on a bike; the lake is often buzzing with people. Grasmere is also plagued by a peculiar and contradictory modern approach to cleanliness. Around the lake many neatly tied plastic parcels lie at the base of trees, along paths, and dangle from branches, swaying in the breeze. Each installation contains the rounded weight of dog faeces, diligently scooped, packaged and placed by their owner. Strangely, when obscured in opaque plastic the faeces become all the more visible. I fantasise about a court case against one of the offending dog owners: a ferocious debate on the relative merits of decomposition and sterilisation. Perhaps they will summon the spirit of ancient Egyptian embalmers to testify to the sacred practice, whereas I will call a compost expert; they then announce an authority on dog dirt parasites, and I find a leading environmentalist to launch forth on the damage of plastic to animals, water systems, eco systems, the planet, my own sanity … and the case collapses with the over-sufficiency of evidence and banal meaninglessness of it all.

The water however can be a threshold to the wild. I escape there sometimes on a lunch hour: stepping into the water, work and tourists remain at the shore and I delight in the rippling, glimmering mass around me. Of course, the lake does not always glimmer invitingly. I find it much harder to steal myself to action in the rain – the wet weather makes me sink into my waterproof clothing like a snail into its shell. I try to retreat from the irksome elements as far as possible, resenting and thereby intensifying my muffled, dampened, shrunken existence. The moisture always creeps in. On one such morning – midsummer’s day – when I had been rudely awakened with complaints about my heavy breathing, I stomped down to the lake to try and shake off my rage. There I met the Grasmere skinny dipper. He was taking the waters, despite the time, despite the weather. As he left he called a cheery greeting, and I realised that far from defying the elements, he was taking a real pleasure in it all. In a fit of inspiration, I followed his lead and stripped off. The water was cool, but refreshing, and suddenly the rain transformed from bane to blessing: as it fell upon the surface of the lake it sang. My sullen rage gave way to joy and I returned home to hot tea and apologies.

Loughrigg Tarn is another of my favourite places to swim. In spring, it is one of the few places where the cuckoo still calls. At that time of year, however, a swim is a very cold, loud, and short-lived experience. But in the summer months the waters warm up. They do not have the putrid ducky quality of Grasmere and Rydal Water, and with the encircling water lilies, oak trees and glimpses of the Langdale Pikes, it is a taste of paradise. When I took a friend for her first swim there, she was so enraptured by the experience that she greeted me the morning after with wide-eyed delight: ‘I’m still buzzing from the dip!’

Yet swimming is not always such a successful experience. On a trip to Eskdale, my partner and I found a series of deep, enticing pools where the river gorged its way through rock. Unfortunately, our visit fell on one of those rare May days that feel like November. The overcast sky loomed overhead, darkening with the threat of rain, and a bitter wind swept down the valley from Scafell. Nonetheless, determined not to be defeated by mere ‘conditions’ we stripped to the waist and attempted the first steps towards a swim. Ignoring the reality suggested by the fact we hadn’t yet removed our upper layers (tops, jumpers, coats and hats were still firmly in place) we shrieked, shivered, gazed into the cold depths and then agreed: this was not the day for a swim. We retreated, gratefully redressed, and walked homewards, discussing how great it might have been earlier in the day, or later in the year, and if only the wind hadn’t been so cold. We will return.

A swim I will not repeat took place in Grisedale Tarn. It lies higher within the mountains, overlooked by three fells (Fairfield, Dollywaggon and Seat Sandal), and is steeped in mystical associations. At one end is ‘Brother’s Parting Stone’, marking the last place that William Wordsworth and his brother John saw each other before John was shipwrecked and drowned in 1805. It is also said that within the depths of the lake lies the crown of King Dunmail (the last king of Cumbria) – cast there after his defeat in battle nearby in 945 AD. Oblivious to these associations, on a warm September afternoon I charged down from Fairfield’s summit, intent on a swim. I was feeling all of the elation that comes from a day on the fells, and yes, this would be perfect, the exhilarating climax to a great day. But Grisedale speaks a different language. As I got closer to the water’s edge, it suddenly grew. What had appeared a small, benign body of water from above was suddenly a vast, quiet expanse. As I waded out, I could see each stone lining the bottom with remarkable clarity. Unlike the peaty hues and murky depths of other local lakes, Grisedale’s waters are crystal clear. I pushed out and swam, bracing against the cold and waiting for my body to adjust. Ten metres from the shore, I trod water and looked down. I could see my feet below with a rare, perfect clarity – and then in shock – I saw only black below.

Here was the most peculiar awareness of depth: I had a sudden, terrifying sense of an unfathomable void below. It was as if the world had been turned upside down, and the space, the air, the possibilities that usually exist above my head opened below my feet. With the sky still above me, I was suspended in a bizarre midway point – like soloing without a rock face – I was floating in infinite space. I made a beeline for the shore, craving the terra firma of sunshine and descent. It struck me then that the Icelandic belief in the possibility of elf and faery existence was perhaps not so far-fetched in places like this, where my usual composed grasp of space and depth was utterly defeated. Afterwards, a quick internet search confirmed my suspicions: Grisedale is one of the deepest lakes in the Grasmere area. But this understanding has done little to erode the power of that sudden shock of instinctive knowledge.

These escapades with their thrill, fun and freedom are not merely escapism, a way to ‘get away from it all’. That stale definition overlooks the essential activeness required to swim in lakes, rivers and the sea. To swim is to act, to shake off the passive role of deskilled spectator that we are relegated to in so many aspects of our lives, now that we do not need to walk to work, grow our own food, or even repair our own possessions. When swimming, we enter an unpredictable arena and use resource, initiative, and skill to navigate the difficulties; this renewed agency demands new strands of thought and physicality, fostering further meaningful relationships with the self and with our rich, varied planet.

Taking the Plunge by Anna Fleming was taken with permission from Waymaking - an anthology of prose, poetry and artwork by women who are inspired by wild places, adventure and landscape. Order a copy of Waymaking.

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