Last weekend I went on a little expedition. One of my goals this year is to get some ‘Wild Swimming’ under my belt. I love swimming, and I love being outdoors, so it’s no great leap of the imagination to realise that swimming somewhere beautiful outdoors is the perfect adventure. (Actually the perfect adventure might be to cycle to a Wild Swimming Spot, swim in it, and cycle home, but that’s another project) Wild Swimming
1. Swimming in natural waters such as rivers, lakes and waterfalls.
2. Dipping or plunging in secret or hidden places, sometimes in wilderness areas.
3. Action of Swimming wildy, such as jumping or diving from a height, using swings or riding the current of a river.
On this occasion, and with very little encouragement, I managed to rope my favourite aunt Kate into the project, thus providing photographic evidence that I did indeed do what I set out to do, and also providing me with base camp in Derbyshire.
The weather was glorious, and the scenery fantastic. We really couldn’t believe our luck. Approaching Blake Mere along the Morridge Road, the panoramic view was spectacular and worth a stop to take in its stunning beauty. I had researched the swim spots beforehand and seen photos of Blake Mere, but didn’t actually expect it to look quite as inviting in real life as it did when we came upon it.
Situated right next to a quiet, but windy stretch of road, with a small parking area at the top, the tarn is easily accessible. I was pretty excited at the sight of this shimmering blue mirror reflecting the sky, and hopped out of the car eager to get my swimsuit on and jump in.
In a slightly surreal moment as I prepared to slip into a thin layer of Lycra, two fellas emerged from another car dressed head to toe as airmen, complete with leather flying caps with ear flaps and goggles. Evidently, Blake Mere is also an ideal spot for flying model aircraft, and in order to withstand the elements on this hill top, even if you are not getting into your toy plane, you need to dress as though you might.
Fortunately, having layered up over the top of my swim suit, once we had walked down below the ridge there was a little less wind, but it was still going to take a bit of momentum and will power to get in that icy water, and it would be important to warm up quickly afterwards. With the preparedness that only an infant school head teacher can bring to a project, Kate was poised and ready with towels and thermos.
Looking at a patch of water and preparing to swim in it are two completely different things, and as a qualified swimming teacher myself, and as the daughter of another, I could not help but start to do a little health and safety check once at water level.
The swim was something I was at least fairly well prepared for. But it had not occurred to me that getting in, and even more important, getting out, might need some planning. The blackness of the water close up is due to the peat that lines the tarn, and at its edges are mats of squidgy, mobile moss. Poking at the water with a stick on the brink of the pool revealed that it drops away sharply, which would mean I was immediately out of my depth as soon as I entered the water.
At the edge of the tarn is bench inscribed:
In the summer at Mermaid Pool - As the grass grows all around - I think sometimes I hear her sing - For the Mermaids home I’ve found
The poem alludes to local folklore which claims that a woman rejected the advances of a man called Joshua at the local pub on the high road. Being a bit peeved he accused her of being a witch and threw her in the Mere. Cursing him as she drowned, she got her revenge three days later when poor old Joshuas’ body was found scratched and clawed by the side of the pool. It is said that no animals will drink from the water because it is cursed.
Dipping my toe in the murky waters I could see why, and with the cold air quickly cooling my fairly naked body I knew that cursed or not, I’d better bet my butt in and out of this water sharpish. There was only room for one mermaid here. And it was going to be me.
And so with some mind over matter, and with the encouragement that only someone who wouldn’t dream of swimming in a dark pool of death can give, I went for it.
After a bit of vigorous kicking and doggy paddle to become accustomed to the water temperature, the initial nerves settled and I found the experience of swimming in this strange little pond glorious. With the sun shining and the only ripples on the water being made by me, I emersed myself in the experience and explored the space by swimming about and floating on my back looking up at the sky. Anyone who has swum in open water will know that perhaps the most scary thing about it is what you can see (or can’t see) underwater. It took me a while to get my head in, but when I did put my face under, it was so dark that I couldn’t see an inch in front of me, and looking at my limbs as I floated near the surface the peaty water gave them an eary orangey brown glow.
It was tempting to stay in longer, but after about 15 mins of swimming in the cold water it was time to get out by way of a slightly inelegant mud crawling manoeuvre.
And so it was that after a hot drink and a bit of regrouping, we left Blake Mere for our second swim spot that afternoon. This was to be a small plunge pool, or series of pools and waterfalls called Panniers Pool, deep in the valley where the river Dane runs between cut-thorn hill and turn edge.
This location was much less accessible by car, with the nearest parking a couple of miles away, so with a closer look at the OS map and with bags packed we set off an a fairly challenging walk that would take us up and down a few hills and along the valley.
As it turns out there were a lot of people out hiking, not surprisingly given that it was such a beautiful day, and we came across several groups of teenagers doing their Duke of Edinburgh award en route.
Finally after nearly two hours leisurely walk we reached the spot where the river runsthrough a small bridge and into pools of varying depths than can be explored by paddling. Close to the bridge where we sat and ate our lunch was a rendezvous point for the Duke of Edinburgh youf which made for excellent people watching. It’s funny what being outside brings out in people, and a man who was sitting by one of the pools with his teenage daughter had just stripped to his pants to take a dip, finding the cool water on a hot day rather irresistible. Even more amusingly he then struck up a conversation with another woman who he didn’t seem to know at all, chatting happily with his hands on his hips in his wet underpants ankle deep in water. Out here, in the open air, this seemed a perfectly normal thing to do, and I liked that.
The pool that I wanted to plunge into was a little further down the valley where it was deeper and there was more of a waterfall, rather than rivulets of running water. So we clambered down and taking a similar approach to outdoor nakedness as the man in his pants, I slipped into my swimsuit.
With running water and a rocky bottom, Panniers Pool was quite a different swimming experience than swimming in Blake Mere that morning. The water was fresher, and the depth variable, making it easier to paddle about the edges and explore its rocky corners. The waterfall created a fairly strong current that made it difficult to approach, but not impossible if you grabbed hold of some of the mossy rocks to one side and hauled yourself in front of the torrent.
The waterfall was so powerful that to stand in it I had to push with my legs and lean back against it, before being thrown back into the pool beneath. The noise in a waterfall is extraordinary, and with icy water pummelling your body and the sound of water roaring around your ears, all of your senses are bombarded at once. Refreshing is too clichéd a word to use. And actually, I can’t think of one good enough, so I just recommend you try it yourself.
And so with reluctance and with outwardly shivering limbs I dragged myself out of the water once again and Kate and I regathered ourselves for the walk back to the car, admiring from a height the pool I had been swimming in only minutes before. The two swimming experiences had been very different. The first needed a little more courage but was ultimately calming. The second had been exhilarating. I loved both and when we finally got back to base camp at about 9pm that evening I had that happy exhaustion that you only get by being out in the fresh air (and even fresher water) all day.