Winter Tarns

Suzanna Cruikshank introduces her five favourite lakeland tarns for seriously chilly swims
Winter Tarns © Suzanna Cruickshank
Hill walking and swimming go hand in hand for me. During the colder months I favour tarns that don’t take hours to get to or ones that have a decent pub (and roaring fire!) at the end of the walk. These are walks where a summit is not the main objective. My essential kit for cold weather swimming in the hills includes a pair of micro spikes (just in case) and some fleecy mittens, a square of yoga mat to stand on and a flask of thick warming soup. Post swim routines are key. I fold and pile my clothes in the order I will put them back on so no matter how cold I am all I have to do is follow the order.

Grisedale Tarn, Patterdale

Winter Tarns Grisdale © Suzanna Cruickshank

Grisedale Tarn is sunk in a glacial depression between the hills at the head of a long narrow valley. You can build up quite a head of steam by the time you have made the steady climb from Patterdale to the col between Fairfield and the fabulously named Dollywagon Pike. It reaches a depth of 34 metres and is said to hold the crown of Dunmail, the last king of Cumbria. It is a committing swim with steeply shelving edges. The outflow is the best and most obvious place to get in for a quick plunge. I feel small and insignificant in the deep cold water surrounded by big hills. Emerging, I feel grateful that the water has let me win this one.

Bowscale Tarn, Mungrisdale

Winter Tarn Bowscale © Suzanna Cruickshank

The lay of the land around Bowscale Tarn means it doesn’t get any direct sunlight in the depths of winter. Despite this it is one of my top winter swims. I have swam here in all weathers but there is something inexplicably irresistible about the chilly shadows of the valley when the sun can’t quite reach over the top of Bowscale Fell. You won’t see the tarn till the last minute as you round the corner of the massive moraine and suddenly the tarn is in front of you backed by brooding shadowy crags. It’s shallow around the outflow so continue along the path for another 50 yards to a grass ledge for slipping into knee deep water by a handy boulder to cower down behind when the wind whips through. The colour beneath the surface is brilliant blue, dazzlingly magical.

Bleaberry Tarn, Buttermere

Winter Tarns Buttermere © Suzanna Cruickshank

The ideal winter swim hike for me is the one with a great pub at the end where I can thaw out in front of a fire. This one starting from Buttermere has two. Take your pick from the Fish Inn or the Bridge Inn. Or both! The pitched path snakes easily uphill and emerges above the wood to a breathtaking view down Buttermere. A bit more collar work and the tarn appears beneath the hauntingly beautiful Chapel Crags. The shallow fringe of the tarn is ringed with submerged boulders so water shoes are a good idea to avoid turning an ankle. I like to float like a starfish in the centre of the tarn and gaze at the crags, embracing the cold, before heading back down through the woods as the day dims.

Blackbeck Tarn, near Haystacks

Winter Tarns Blackbeck © Suzanna Cruickshank

Most walkers seem to pass Blackbeck Tarn giving it no more than a cursory glance. It is in a very pretty position amidst the craggy knolls but with Inomimate Tarn nearby most will carry on by, making their way to Wainwright’s famous resting place and that magnificent view of Pillar. Starting from Honister Slate Mine is a handy leg up into the fells on short cold winter days and you can easily reach Blackbeck Tarn within 45 minutes. It is shallow, no more than 14 metres in the middle, and bouldery around the edges. You’ll need something for your feet to tackle the bouldery rocks coated in a slippery layer of sediment unless you favour an undignified belly flop into the water. To the south Great Gable peeks over the horizon. The outflow towards Buttermere gives an illusion of an infinity pool.

Burnmoor Tarn, Eskdale

Winter Tarn Burnmoor © Suzanna Cruickshank

It’s a long lonely walk to Burnmoor Tarn from either of the Eskdale approaches (via Miterdale or Boot). From Boot it can also be a boggy trudge so when winter takes hold and the ground freezes it is a joy to be up there. Burnmoor Lodge broods on the edge of the tarn. The path between Boot and Wasdale is an ancient coffin trod. It is all a bit spooky and secretive up there unless the sun is shining. The tarn itself is fairly shallow from the outflow to the east and beautifully clear. You can swim virtually to the middle of the tarn before you lose sight of the bottom. Burnmoor Tarn is bounded by whale back hills and moraines. In the emptiness around the tarn it is easy to feel like you are the only person on earth.