Challenging waters: the diary of a Lake District swimmer

On his 60th birthday, John Mather took on the challenge of a lifetime – to swim the length of all 17 lakes within the Lake District National Park 

Published: July 25th, 2017 at 9:30 am
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In 2014, I decided to celebrate my 60th birthday by attempting to swim the length of all 17 lakes contained within the Lake District National Park. Little did I realise the time, effort and planning that would be involved.


The national park’s 17 lakes range hugely in size, from Brothers Water in the east – just under half-a-mile long – to Windermere, the longest natural lake in England (10.5 miles).

During my challenge, I was fortunate on most swims to be joined by colleagues, and I was always supported with one or more boats in the busier lakes.

John and a group of swimmers about to set off at Brothers Water, 2015

I experienced many highlights throughout the experience: heading straight down the length of Wast Water in the shadow of the Lakes mighty scree slopes; racing with four hundred other swimmers in the icy depths of Coniston Water; and squeezing through the narrowest of tree-lined passageways between Elter Water’s hidden pools.

John and friend Tom preparing to swim Elter Water, 2016

I was fortunate to see and experience the Lake District in many of its majestic moods, catching tantalising glimpses of red squirrels, cormorants, woodpeckers and deer.

But not everything went to plan. My memories of enduring the southern shores of Windermere in a torrential rain storm, and misjudging the length and temperatures of Bassenthwaite Lake are best forgotten.

Although I was unable to take on four of the water bodies – three of these reservoirs – I was particularly pleased with my successful swim of Ullswater last summer. I did this to advertise that Ullswater (and the Lake District) was ‘open for business’ following the damage caused by Storm Desmond in December 2015. As well as generating some good publicity from the local media, it was heartening to raise funds for the local communities affected by the storms.

John Mather beneath scree slopes in Wast Water, 2016

By the end of October 2016 I had swum a total of 40 miles – a distance greater than that endured by someone attempting to cross the English Channel – and my challenge was complete.

I decided to write an illustrated account of my journey to highlight the beauty and fragility of this wonderful land; to draw attention to some failings in water quality and also to encourage other swimmers to have a go.

Top tips for a happy swim
John Mather swimming in Ullswater, 2016

I advise anyone considering open water swimming in the Lake District to:

  • Wear a wet suit and brightly coloured cap, and tow a safety float
  • Swim in a group and be accompanied by a small craft with a blue and white alpha flag
  • Plan your route and prepare for the unexpected
  • Look out for other lake users and avoid marinas, jetties, ferry routes & boating channels
  • Remember to check, clean and dry all your kit to avoid contamination
  • Check that there is mobile phone coverage, in case of emergencies

Find out more about how to stay safe in the water and the Lake District.

John Mather is based in Carlisle and has swum extensively in lakes and pools throughout the UK and overseas. His book Challenging Waters, the Diary of a Lake District Swimmer (ISBN 978-0-9955990-0-0) is due to be published in March 2018.


Images: ©John Mather



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