Wild Swimming in the Lake District with Gilly McArthur

Having the lake on our doorstep is always a temptation, whether it’s at first light when the mist rolls along the surface of the water, or in the warm golden evenings of summer.

So you can experience the revitalising feeling we have teamed up with Gilly, Vicki and Jonathan, local swimming guides who are on hand to teach you how to take a dip safely, and how your body benefits from being near or in water. For more confident swimmers they can show you some beautiful swim spots in the lakes too.

We had a quick chat with them to experience their passion for cold water swimming.

Let’s start with what got you into wild swimming?

Gilly: So for me, I’m a rock climber as well as a swim coach – but after moving to the lakes I realised that it rains a lot! I decided to shift more from the vertical solid world to the horizontal liquid world. I found myself standing on the shore of Windermere one Autumn with my wetsuit on and decided give cold water swims a go. Whilst on the shore there was a group of swimmers enjoying a dip, no wetsuits on. We chatted and they explained that for them wetsuits were a faff – so I ditched the wetsuit and haven’t looked back! (I do still like a wet suit now and again though!)

Connecting to the cold is really powerful. The science around cold water for well-being has long been spoken about but fell out of fashion – it has had a resurgence recently. I find it all fascinating.

During Covid I ran a free group to help people get into cold water for wellbeing, partnering with a psychotherapist and coach. I wanted to share the feeling I had with others. Before that I had worked in the outdoor industry and set up a climbing festival to get more women into the outdoors, the two combined nicely and here we are today. I’ve now competed in international ice swimming events, I’m a coach, speaker, contributor to swimming books and love sharing the water to other groups of people. I work with individuals, charities, film crews and corporate groups on the power of the cold and water for wellbeing. It’s become my world.

Photography by Ben Gerrish HDDN Media 

Vicki: My love for the outdoors and career have meant that I have always sought out adventure and beautiful spaces. Dipping in bodies of water through choice in summer or through a non negotiable part of learning to sail/kayak in winter. I can’t really remember a time where I haven’t swum outdoors. About 10 years ago I ended up at the shore with a group of pals, realising how good it is for me the love for it just grew and instead of it being a small part of another activity, it has become the activity. Back when I met Gilly there was a small group of us that would go on Fridays, swimming out to a buoy on Windermere. Seeking out the cold and swimming through winters has cemented my love and confidence within water. 

I’ve always been someone who likes to pass on skills, giving people the opportunity to enjoy being out there.

Jonathan: I have always loved swimming of all kinds but my first “official” open water swim was here in Windermere. In 2009 I did the Great North Swim mile as part of a challenge with some friends. I loved it and was immediately hooked! The feeling of freedom, the physicality of moving efficiently through the water, of being immersed in a beautiful landscape is intoxicating. Open water swimming has taken me around the world, from swimming down the Hudson river in Manhattan to racing across a frozen lake in Poland, but it all started here in Windermere. It will always hold a special place in my heart.

Photography by Charlotte Bull

There’s loads of benefits to cold water swimming, what would be your top three to encourage a Langdale Chase guest into the water?

Gilly: For me it’s three things – connection to nature and the blue green spaces, connecting to the cold, connecting to yourself and others. I’m familiar with mindfulness meditation practices and teachings and incorporate this into the sessions, within that there’s a lot of benefits to sitting peacefully by water. You only need to sit by a body of water for twenty minutes to calm down your amygdala.

I’m really interested in the power of the cold for mental wellbeing, there’s loads of studies for how the cold is good for us. Powerful changes happen in the water.

We are running a programme for the NHS on how the cold water is powerful to help alleviate Anxiety and depression from September here in Cumbria!

The third thing is connection to ourselves and others. There’s something really lovely about being stripped bare on a shoreline and just getting into the water, no screens and playing again. We forget, as we get older, that play is really important.

Photography by James Kirby

Vicki: Pretty much what Gilly has said. I think spending time within the outdoors from the viewpoint of the water. Seeing the mountains and fells from this aspect never gets old and gives you perspective and clarity on the dullest of days. 

The idea of sharing the experience with others, there is never a swim in which doesn’t result in great conversation, sharing life’s common challenges or laughing together. It’s a space in which can be truly treasured and brings with it unique memories. 

Finally mental health resilience. I find swimming meditative in its form, whether that’s within the grasps of the cold, managing this additional challenge and only being able to be present in the moment. Or in summer, long head down swims, with the breathing every third front crawl stroke setting me into a calming rhythm and allowing my thoughts to soften. Popping up to the reward of blue skies and mountains shadowing over you. 

Gilly: A little side note but from September onwards we’re part of the NHS trail for how cold swimming can alleviate depression.

Jonathan: It’s fun! Playing around in water is a joyful, childlike experience that too many of us forget to incorporate into our adult lives. Forgetting about work, bills and adult responsibilities and just enjoying being in the moment is so restorative.

Connection with the body. Even if you are only dipping, there is a physicality to swimming that I find really special. When you are immersed you are held by the water, the cool water igniting all the receptors on your skin. I love the simplicity of swimming, it is just you and the water.

Adventure. Swim to an island, jump off a jetty, dip in cold water for the first time. Set yourself free to experience something different to your everyday 9 to 5. 

Where’s your favourite swim spot in the Lakes?

Gilly: Hmm, my favourite place in the Lakes really depends on the season. I’m still really drawn to places where I have climbed that have bodies of water below them. So these are tarns that are higher up! It’s magic to be held on the waters up there and it’s more adventurous. In the winter it’s lovely to hike up to those places and get into the frozen water, its absolutely magical.  Low level swims are also really special, swimming in Windermere at six in the morning, with a warm dawn where the clouds are pink, there’s a thin mist and the geese are flying low – that’s magic. It’s brilliant to be back home in time for breakfast to start your day. Windermere is where many swim groups have formed these last few years. It holds a special place for me.

Vicki: My favourite dipping places are anywhere I’ve come across whilst walking or mountain biking where I can cool off. If I was going to have to pick somewhere I’d probably say Goats Water near Coniston. It’s got crystal clear blue water, you’re under the shadow of Dow Crag so there’s normally climbers up there scaling the mountain. It’s always cold in the shadow of the mountain so there’s rarely any people swimming. But it always leaves me feeling refreshed.

Jonathan: I really love Stickle Tarn in Langdale. Swimming under the brooding mass of Pavey Ark is really atmospheric – it feels as though Gollum could pop out the water with a magic ring at any moment!

Photography by Ben Gerrish HDDN Media 

What the team can offer.

We will coach people how to access bodies of water safely for themselves and can also take newcomers to locations up high or venture further afield. We can also offer dips from the hotel, wellness practices that can super boost mental and physical health’s and we want to give people the tools to take more care in nature. It’s critical that everyone who comes to a body of water or to play in the outdoors learns how to be great advocates for nature. Check – clean – Dry (regarding bio security) and “leave it better” are our mantras to keep these places special for the future. We can also work with corporate teams and groups on cold water sessions. You name it – it’s all possible.

Gilly, Vicki and Jonny offer bespoke sessions out in the water, from a gentle hour or two from the hotel, getting you confident with a cold dip or swim, to days out in the Lakes. They have a host or resources you can use to help your journey too.

To give you an idea of what is available there are a few options below. To book a session please speak to a member of our team and we’ll put you in contact.

1) A dip from Langdale Chase jetty.
No need to travel, this short session will give you the tools to go wild swimming whilst also giving you the health benefits cold water swimming provides. Plus you’ll can pop back to your room for a warm bath after. This is brilliant at any time of the day but a pre breakfast cold dip is always magic in any weather.

2) Swim to the island or swim across a lake.
Enjoy the adventure of swimming to an island on Coniston Water. The team can also guide you across or round other bodies of water.

3) Tarn dipping in the lakes
Reach crystal clear waters in the Lakeland fells and experience the lake district from a different perspective. Learn about the landscape on a guided walk up high and how these areas are special.