Depths of winter

Rory Southworth is swimming 20 Lake District Tarns deeper than 10 metres before Spring arrives

We all need something to keep up going over the winter. For trail runner Rory Southworth, it has been reading W. Heaton Cooper’s classic Tarns of Lakeland and compiling a list of all those more than 10 metres deep. With 20 making the cut, Rory has been working his way across them and charting his progress on Instagram as the #deepwatersproject. Here, we join him on an after-work mission to score decisive ticks on the list next to Blea Tarn and Watendlath Tarn.

I haven’t been able to feel my feet for a while now, and we aren’t even at the first swim on this dark and snowy evening. The idea of an after-work, double night swim sounded a great idea whilst it was sunny and light. I even managed to convince my friend Charlie to join me on this 10km round trip in the Lake District. But that was before it started snowing and the cloud rolled in, reducing the visibility down to 100m.

We’re here because of what I’m calling my #deepwatersproject – a list of tarns, or mountain lakes, that are deeper than 10m, collated from the classic W. Heaton Cooper book, Tarns of Lakeland. The idea is to swim the length of all of these tarns in order to swim in new places and keep me motivated through the coldest part of the year for swimming. 

got a bit of a thing for lists, having summited each of the 214 hill tops listed in Alfred Wainwright’s guidebooks of the Lake District. It’s a popular challenge, one that ends up consuming your weekends or, like me, your evenings. In summer or winter, I’d head out after work with a head torch and my OS map trudging on to summit another few epic peaks.

After a year’s break from list-based projects, I felt the need again. I was out swimming with friend and swim guide Suzanna Swims and picked up Cooper’s book from her van. Flicking through, I saw that the depth of each of the tarns was listed. Then I ordered my own book and set to work as it arrived: searching for the deepest tarns, drawn to the swims that required absolute commitment due to their seemingly endless depth.


I had no particular strategic plan when approaching the 20 tarns that made the list of those deeper than 10m. I settled on 20 because it seemed to include enough of sufficient depth and in sufficient number to make it a worthwhile list. When I started swimming them, I went for the easy wins: the ones with short hikes up to them; the ones close together; and the ones that required the least amount of driving after work. This was great in the end-stages of autumn, before last of the warm water cooled and winter unarguably set in. 

With it now being impossible to escape the dark evenings, the trip with Charlie to swim Blea Water and Watendlath Tarn begins in a now-well-rehearsed pattern. I first mark the finish point with two lanterns, before running – wetsuited – the length of the tarn to get back round to the start and to begin the swim, heading towards the lights. It’s a proven effective method for making sure I swim the length, unless the cloud rolls down…

We’re swimming Blea Tarn first, at 540m long, and dutifully go to place the two lanterns at the finish point. Around 200m into the return run to the start, I stop and turn back to look for the lanterns. Nothing, just darkness. We keep going. I make up an explanation that there may be a small mound obscuring them. But the truth is that after hiking for just under two hours in the dark and snow it might all be for nothing. Not having a clue which way is straight ahead in the water can easily leave you disoriented and with no idea which is the right way to swim. You can end up swimming for much further than expected, and with these minus air temperatures and pretty cold water temperatures, that’s not a risk either I or Charlie fancy – especially with her swimming in only a bikini.

The decision is made: Charlie is too cold to swim this tarn now and will walk back along the side of it to where we left our lanterns, along with more of our kit. This now gives me a reference to where the bank of the tarn is and by following her head torch I can swim knowing I’m going in the right direction. I get into the water and try to keep up with Charlie walking, eventually settling into a pace. My apprehension of this swim also settles and I feel focused, peaceful and, finally, relaxed. My body warms, the cloud starts to clear a little and I’m reminded why I do this – the beauty of this place, the peacefulness, and the absolute adventure that I’ve had so far.


John-Paul Walsh

I stumble out of the water, my feet still frozen stuff, throwing my fist in the air as I spot Charlie. Not wanting to hang about, I throw a few warm jackets on over my wetsuit, swing my bag over my shoulder and we start to head back down the hill for 4km to the next tarn. Though I still can’t feel my feet, it’s clear that neoprene booties aren’t the best footwear for descending a pathless mountain in the Lake District. 

We see lights; it’s the farmhouse next to the second tarn. Now warm from the descent, we head straight over to the end point, placing our lanterns and making our way to the start. The path fades as we head closer to the shore of the water, turning rapidly from gravel path to bog. The local farmer arrives on his quad bike followed by his bounding border collie. “You guys alright?” he asks, clearly worried about us. I explain that we aren’t lost at all but swimmers just looking for the end point of the tarn to swim the length. He looks at me, still in my wetsuit, and seems bemused but understanding as he leaves us. The tarn is quiet once more.

I step into the water expecting a hard surface, then sink up to my knee and fall forward with a splash. The boggy ground should have alerted me to this soft bottom. I part swim, part crawl in this stinky sludge to a deeper part of the tarn, while Charlie, not about to make the same mistake as me, looks for a better entry point. We swim next to each other in a buddy system, checking on our temperatures and generally having a catch-up chat. The cloud has shifted and we can see our lanterns shinning bright. This is a Monday after-work swim. This is what I love doing. This is where I feel comfortable.