“Wet suits fitted”, the sign said. We had just arrived in Ambleside. The rain blew softly around us as it often does in that town. We might have wanted to keep dry but the sign declared some thing else.
River, lake and wild swimming have become a British fashion as we rediscover water is a pleasure in ways that our continental cousins never forgot. A wet suit has become a requirement where more adventurous swimmers wear none.
The fashion for wild swimming arrived a while ago, after Roger Deakin published Waterlog in 1999, inspired in part by Cheever’s short story The Swimmer. Since then wild swimming has become a wave, a wonderful fashion that connects us with nature, is good for depression and gives us joy.
That it didn’t use to be so is a truism and a fact of life. Anyone familiar with Swallows and Amazons will know that the Walker children went swimming in the lake. I loved the drawing of them diving for pearls and looked at it with envy as a child growing up in bilharzia-ridden Zimbabwe.
Later I swam in Windermere, and other tarns and lakes around the Lake District, but I never went pearl diving or wild swimming. Then, it was just swimming, nothing wild about it. Hot, we jumped in the water.
The tone and tenor of our lives is different. The fabrics we wear and the places we visit looked very different 90 years ago. Wild has changed. Wild is different.
The Lake District National Park has published a local plan and Julian Glover is leading a review of national parks, all of it prompted by change and the need for change. When I returned home, reading an article in Rucksack magazine from 1933 reminded me how much it has all changed.
Dick Hall, a Quaker and early YHA member, wrote about the Lake District in 1933. He called it Lakeland. The Lake District was not a national park then and the way he described the area brings alive a very different place from the one we visit today.
Hall’s Lakeland was “a square of 25 miles”. People visited the area for its Lakes and Mountains, for its “peace and quiet and unspoiled beauty … And for something of the charm and simplicity in the natives.” The words used and sentiments towards local people have changed, the peace and quiet are more disturbed by crowds, but otherwise the attraction is little different.
Hall makes no mention of cars. Visitors arrived “through three towns – in the SW corner Kendal, in the NE corner Penrith, in the NW corner Cockermouth”. Some might have come through Carnforth, arriving at Coniston.
Few would describe the Lake District in that way today. Visitors enter the national park from the motorway, through Windermere and Keswick, often queuing through traffic jams. Hall was writing for an audience he expected would arrive by train.
To understand the lie of the land he recommended a walker should circle “the Centre, Great Gable…”. He used what he called the Four Pass Walk. “[Y]ou see the heads of most of the main valleys and climb over delightfully wild passes – with their levels easily graded from 1190 feet (Honister) to 1400 feet (Scarf Gap) to 1600 feet (Sty Head) to 1800 feet (Black Sail).”
It’s not a walk I’ve ever done as a single round but it’s still recommended as a classic and an ultra marathon.
There were no ultra marathons when Hall was there in 1933. He and others were used to walking greater distances than we are today. Walkers seemed to walk 20 miles without thinking about it then.
For clothing Hall recommended “wool next the skin and good stout nailed boots… and, with as many changes of clothes as your rucksack will hold, you can face three days’ rain with composure.” They were a hardy bunch with fewer possessions and I’m sure my composure doesn’t equal theirs.
If I had three days in mind, I’d go for gore tex, vibram, clothes for the pub, a washbag, phone and a spare pair of shoes, and I wouldn’t carry a “half-crown pocket compass” but something by Silva more likely.
Hall recommended one other item of clothing based on the local industry of “cloth and blanket making from the wool of [Herdwick] sheep …” He suggested “a good plaid of Herdwick wool is better protection against wet weather than any macintosh”. I look forward to meeting a runner or walker wearing a wool blanket in the rain.
The local industry of Hall’s time has gone. As far as I know, no one makes much of Herdwick wool. Farming has changed but “delightful farms at Seathwaite, Gatesgarth and Burnthwaite” still “stand at the head of a valley and appear as outposts of civilisation, the farthest limits in the wilds where man can make a footing and live.”
Hall goes further to write that “Sheep farming and general mixed farming are the chief occupations of the Lakeland inhabitant… ” No mention of tourism, tearooms, shops, activities, restaurants, beer and Beatrix Potter, and no mention of wild swimming or wet suits.
He made much of the hostels of Lakeland as you’d expect in a magazine devoted to them. In 1933 a good set of hostels was open for visitors. Some are still open today and are in essence little changed. Black Sail is still “the most remotely placed hostel of all…”. Coppermines “one of the most delightful of the smaller hostels” continues to offer “a kind welcome in the wilds of the hills …” though the hills are less wild now cars go up and down the valley track willy nilly.
Many of the hostels of Hall’s time list, among their attractions, lake or river bathing available nearby. It’s all very matter of fact and there’s no mention of wet suits. When washing facilities at hostels were non existent or basic at best, river and lake swimming must have been welcome. No doubt that practical consideration explains why the Walker children went swimming from Wild Cat Island.
It’s a final reminder of how times have changed since swimming in a lake or river was a way of keeping clean as well as a wild adventure on a holiday in Lakeland. And, no wet suit was required.
Want to know more about some of the hostels mentioned in this post:
more about YHA Black Sail in one of YHA archivist John Martin’s profiles here Y950001-Black Sail YH Profile 2018-01-01 copy
And another of John’s profiles about Goldrill House – YHA Patterdale here Y950001-Patterdale YHs Profile 2017-05-23 [p] copy
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