'Dipping your toes into the water is a step into the unknown. It forces you to leave the reliable gravitational pull of dry land and put your faith into something intangible.'
So began Suzanna Cruickshank's journey into open water. Suzanna is an outdoor swimming guide based in the Lake District where she runs her own business leading guided swims and swim hikes for groups and individuals. Her guide to Swimming Wild in the Lake District lifts the lid on the area’s secluded swimming spots and hidden gems. Below you’ll find some of her favourite venues to enjoy a dip.
The grassy peninsula is shaded from the road by noble oak trees and has a wide stony beach around the perimeter. It is a grand spot to park up and swim – from car to the water’s edge in two minutes flat.
The entire lake is a designated National Nature Reserve. The head of the lake beyond Blackstock Point is a no-boating zone. You should also avoid swimming there so nesting or wintering birds are not disturbed.
As you might expect, being so close to the reed beds you are likely to see plenty of birdlife here – my favourites are mostly the ones I don’t need a book to identify: cormorants, herons, goo sander and great rafts of geese.
You can also see (so I’m told) pochard, wigeon, goldeneye, tufted duck, great crested grebe, little grebe and red-breasted merganser. The star of the show is the osprey – it is a real treat to see their languorous circling over the lake. After a nest platform was built in Wythop Woods, a pair of ospreys nested there in 2001, becoming the first wild osprey to breed in the Lake District for over 150 years. Ospreys have nested in Wythop Woods and Dodd Wood ever since.
Blackstock Point is served by a convenient lay-by on the A66 (note that this lay-by can only be accessed when travelling north-west to south-east, i.e. from Cockermouth towards Keswick).
The X4 and X5 buses that run between Penrith, Keswick, Cockermouth and Workington serve both sides of the lake. For all swims off the A66, take the X5 and alight on the minor road which runs through Thornthwaite village, near the junction with the A66. Take extreme care crossing the A66.
For the eastern shore you need the X4 which runs along the A591. Alight at Dodd
Wood for a lovely walk to Scarness Bay via Mirehouse and St Bega’s Church (2 miles).
All parking is mentioned in the location descriptions.
With the exception of the Pheasant Inn, near Wythop Mill, there are no hostelries right on the lake. The others listed are within a short drive or a nice walk.
Pheasant Inn, Bassenthwaite Lake. Traditional Cumbrian pub a short walk from Peel Wyke.
Sun Inn, Bassenthwaite Village. Dog-friendly pub a 1.5-mile walk from Scarness Bay.
Old Sawmill Tearoom, Mirehouse. Situated a 1.7-mile walk from Scarness Bay.
Middle Ruddings, Braithwaite. This country inn and restaurant is a short drive from Bassenthwaite Lake.
Braithwaite Village Shop. Fresh takeaway sandwiches made to order, pies and picnic supplies.
Derwent Water: Foreshore Landings and Derwent Isle
I wouldn’t normally advocate swimming from or near a boat jetty, but I make an exception for the foreshore on Derwent Water. It’s where my love of open water was born and who am I to deny this pleasure to another hopeful swimmer? During the day it’s busy with pleasure boats but arrive first thing in the morning and you will have the place to yourself. Early mornings are my favourite time to swim down the channel towards Friar’s Crag. Light falling on the fells is an ever-changing show through the seasons and I could swim up and down this route a hundred times and never get bored.
Although the boats do not tend to launch until after 9.15 a.m. be aware that the residents on Derwent Isle can come across to the ‘mainland’ in a small motorboat at any time of day.
Derwent Isle is a delight. It lies less than 150 metres from shore, a swim low in effort but one
that crosses the path of the launch and other boats. I love to swim round it on a summer’s
evening, wondering what it would be like to live in the manor house and how they get the stripes on the sloping lawn so neat. Stately Skiddaw forms the perfect backdrop to this swim.
The lake is a short walk from Keswick town centre; the foreshore landings are 900 metres from the Moot Hall. Calfclose Bay is a further mile.
Keswick is served by nearly all the bus routes across the region, the principal ones being the 555 from Lancaster via Kendal, Windermere and Grasmere and the X4 and X5 between Workington and Penrith. The 554 comes from Carlisle via Wigton and Bassenthwaite.
The Honister Rambler (77/77A, Easter to October only) serves the western shore and the Borrowdale Rambler (78) serves the eastern shore. Use the Keswick Launch to get to Ashness, Brandelhow and other locations on the lake. It’s a lovely way to see the water, second only to swimming in it. In summer a favourite swim is to take the last launch across the lake and swim back to Keswick.
I strongly advocate the use of public transport for Derwent Water, in particular for the western shore where parking is practically non-existent. During holidays I watch the bus struggling through lines of double-parked cars. With ample buses and a regular launch across the lake, there is really no need to drive.
Little Chamonix, Keswick. Regular readers will be familiar with my pie-based tendencies but I’d easily pass up a pie for one of Ellen’s cakes.
The Square Orange, Keswick. A tiny, narrow bar serving pizza and tapas and continental beers. The size of the kitchen has to be seen to be believed. It can get quite cosy and you often find yourself sharing a table – perfect for warming up!
Fellpack, Keswick. The staff all love the outdoors and will happily chat to you about walks, runs or bike rides. Tell them about your swim over cocktails and a burger.
Thomasons Butchers and Deli, Keswick. Be at the door by 8.00 a.m. for the best hot pie in town. Mine’s a meat and tattie.
Ullswater is a magnificent lake. The best place to appreciate its majesty is from a narrow strip of pebbled beach beneath the road under the precipitous face of Stybarrow Crag. You are in the heart of the action here, perfectly positioned to admire Place Fell and Helvellyn or swim to the photographers’ favourite island, Wall Holm.
The northern shore, that is the one with the road running along it, is served by the 508 bus,
which runs between Penrith and Patterdale (and to Windermere in summer), and the 208, which runs between Keswick and Patterdale (seasonal service).
The handful of free parking places along the A592 fill up quickly. Further parking is available in the large village car park in Glenridding (parking charge) and the National Trust car parks (parking charge) at Glencoyne and Aira Force.
In Patterdale there is a small car park (parking charge) owned by The Patterdale Hotel.
There is no parking worth telling you about between Pooley Bridge and Howtown. Using the Ullswater Steamer to get to Howtown and continuing on foot is a much more attractive proposition. You can also use the steamer to travel between Pooley Bridge, Aira Force and Glenridding.
Howtown Hotel, Ullswater. The more remote a cafe or pub, the more charm and value I subliminally attach to it, regardless of how good (or bad) the food is. The Howtown Hotel is worth the trip round or across the lake to sit on their pristine lawn or, more likely, in front of a roaring fire. Check the opening times, especially in low season.
Fellbites Cafe, Glenridding. Anywhere that advertises a fried egg sandwich (with two eggs) as a ‘lite bite’ on their menu is a clear winner to me. On my last visit there didn’t appear to be any smashed avocado on their menu which can only be a good thing.
The Travellers Rest, Glenridding. Tucked away up Greenside Road, I’ll always walk the extra few minutes for a pint in the cosy bar.
Where the A591 runs alongside the lake there are a couple of small lay-bys; one is shortly after leaving Grasmere village, the other is beyond a sharp bend just past Banerigg Guest House, the latter being the best place for access to Penny Rock Wood. Park up and cross the road to the tarmac footpath along the wall above the lake. In some places you can easily hop over the wall to small beaches and get straight into the water. It’s possible to hop over the wall but choose your spot carefully to avoid damaging the wall or landing in dense undergrowth. This section of the lake is also popular with fishermen, especially early in the day, so choose your swim spot carefully to avoid getting tangled in their lines!
Close to Banerigg Guest House is a viewpoint with two wrought-iron benches overlooking the lake. Back in the 1800s there were plans for several houses along this stretch of road, each with its own private jetty or lake frontage. Work commenced on a semi-circular terrace viewpoint over the lake but eventually the only house that was built was Banerigg, saving the ancient bluebell wood from being cut down. The viewpoint is still there, with a slender gap in the low wall and a wooden bar across the gap. Climb over the bar to negotiate the slate steps down to the water – there is no beach here and the last step hovers precipitously above the water. It is a unique and committing place for a swim but with a with a superb view of Helm Crag.
Grasmere is well served by the 555 bus, which runs between Lancaster and Keswick, with
frequent buses in peak season. The A591, which is the main road through the Lake District, runs along the eastern edge of Grasmere and you can alight the bus alongside the water. There is ample parking at the two car parks at White Moss; payment is by number plate recognition meters. The car park north of the A591 necessitates crossing the busy A591 road on a bend. You can walk directly to the lake from the car park south of the A591, and it has dedicated disabled parking spaces and accessible toilet facilities. Further parking is available in Grasmere Village, a short walk from the lake.
Faeryland tea gardens are right on the lake with rowing boats to hire (but no swimming).
There is an ample choice of hostelries, cafes and pubs in Grasmere village. My favourite is Lucia’s Takeaway Coffee Shop, a temple of sweet and savoury pastry goodness. Green’s Cafe caters very well for those with dietary requirements with an extensive gluten-free and vegan menu. A bar bustling with locals is always a good sign – Tweedies is recommended for evenings.
My number one place to swim in autumn is where a big old oak tree leans over the water at the end of the lake, its branches reaching out over the surface and autumn gold reflecting on the water. A crag juts out from the shore creating a small, shallow bay that fills with lilies in summer. On the other side of the exposed rock and gnarled tree roots there are several more tall oak trees and a nice patch of grass for picnics. It’s off the path and fairly private, although the road is quite close, just a stone’s throw across the mouth of the river. A stone wall shades this changing spot from most traffic, just watch out for snap-happy tourists on the double-decker bus!
Take care immediately after periods of rain which speed up the flow of water leaving the lake here. More than once I’ve had to chase a wetsuit making a break for freedom this way. It’s not enough to sweep a swimmer down to Windermere, and remains shallow enough to stand in, but it might catch out paddlers or small children.
There are a few car parks within walking distance of Rydal Water. There are two car parks at White Moss (parking charge), one on either side of the A591. The one to the south of the A591 has toilets including disabled facilities and compacted stone paths to Grasmere and Rydal Water. Both car parks are controlled by number plate recognition, pay on exit. The small car park at Pelter Bridge (parking charge) is accessed over a humpback bridge, which may not be suitable for low vehicles.
The car parks fill up quickly and the bus is often the best option – regular services from Keswick via Grasmere and from Ambleside stop at the end of the lane leading to Rydal Hall.
Cross the road and cut through the drystone wall opposite the Badger Bar. Access to the water is a short hop over the bridge.
Glen Rothay Hotel and Badger Bar, Rydal. The bar has a hearty menu and great selection of burgers. The rock feature in the toilets is something of a visitor attraction too.
Rydal River Cafe, Rydal. Creative vegetarian and vegan menu served in Rydal Lodge or in the peaceful riverside garden. Signposted from near the river bridge by Rydal Oak.
Old School Room Tea Shop, Rydal Hall. The tea shop serves soups, sandwiches and cake. Take time to walk in the gardens (free entry; donations towards garden maintenance greatly appreciated) or see one of the regular art exhibitions.
Best reached on foot (or from the handy car park at Ambleside RUFC), Borrans Park is on the very northern tip of Windermere by Waterhead. It’s a short walk from the centre of Ambleside and a peaceful enclave from the madness of the central Lake District in summer. In the park there is a long slate shelter where you will often bump into local swimmers on their lunch break. The shelter would definitely benefit from a row of hooks but as far as changing facilities for the outdoor swimmer go, this is one of the best.
Borrans Park is right on the water and has steps leading down to a shingle beach – watch your step on the last one, it’s so high it feels as though the last step is missing. Benefiting from a steady top-up from the River Rothay the water is somewhat fresher than other places on the lake and algae blooms are rarely an issue. Litter is a problem though and I pick glass out of the water on most visits. Mind your step.
A stone’s throw across the water from Borrans Park is Waterhead. There are boats moored in the bay, and lake steamers and launches operate from here. Smaller motorised craft and rowing boats are available for hire. Waterhead has a small promenade with cafes overlooking the water. Needless to say, swimming in that direction or from that shore is not recommended. When I launch from Borrans Park I head west towards Seamew Crag and the interesting shore line around Brathay where cormorants and goosanders patrol the water.
Unless you are travelling outside normal working hours or not in peak season expect roads to be busy with local and tourist traffic. Windermere is one of the best-served lakes for public transport; on foot or by bus is often the most convenient way to get around. Bike hire is available within a short walk of the bus and railway station in Windermere village from Total Adventure Bike Hire and Country Lanes Cycle Centre.
Stagecoach buses operate along the eastern shore. The number 6 operates a limited service between Windermere railway station and Barrow-in-Furness calling at Bowness-on- Windermere Ferry Pier, Fell Foot and Newby Bridge. The 555 (Kendal to Keswick) serves the north of the lake and the 599 operates between Bowness-on-Windermere and Grasmere. The 505 shuttles between Windermere and Coniston via Hawkshead and Ambleside. If you are arriving from further afield, Windermere is linked via regular services from Keswick, Penrith, Kendal, the southern Cumbrian peninsulas and Lancashire.
Windermere Railway Station is the terminus for the single branch line service that offers connections with the West Coast Main Line and Manchester Airport.
A quaint chain ferry crosses the lake between Bowness-on-Windermere and Far Sawrey. If you find yourself in Bowness-on-Windermere and wanting to be in Hawkshead, or vice versa, the ferry is the quickest way across.
Homeground, Windermere village. I love a good breakfast after an early morning swim and Homeground is a royal treat. They only serve breakfast and brunch, along with good coffee and cake.
Method @ Fell, Kendal. This comes recommended by local swimmers who travel from Kendal to Windermere for early morning dips.
1st Floor Cafe, inside Lakeland, Windermere village. Not an obvious choice, but the combination of a lovely cafe and the opportunity to browse the Tupperware in the shop downstairs is weirdly compelling. Best for home and kitchen gadget fetishists.
Bandito Burrito, Windermere village. This spicy Mexican street food makes a refreshing change to twee Lake District coffee shops. I save this as a winter treat as my palate is hopelessly unaccustomed to spice.