Cumbrian wild swimmer Bethane Huntley-Peace discovers the fascination of night swimming:

"Iris Murdoch called swimming pools “machines for swimming in”. It’s good to do lengths at your local leisure centre but if you live in the Lake District, there’s something better. Water surrounds us here and there’s a growing community that regularly swims outdoors, in all weathers, in all seasons, at all times. I’ve always loved wild swimming, ignited by my Dad taking me to the Duddon when I was little to swim in the crystal clear water underneath Birk’s Bridge, and swimming in the sea and saltwater pools in Pembrokeshire. I do also love the cold, and I love the challenge of it. It’s become a way of life.

I began swimming outdoors every day in July. I started submerging myself in different bodies of water, finding new places, appreciating the utterly spellbinding landscape in which I am lucky to live.

As you might imagine, wild swimming every day has its ups and downs. I’ve swum in storms (carefully), waded through mud, reeds, and avoided (or tried not to disturb) wildlife. I’ve also had many amazing experiences, and over this time, I have found the particulars that make a “good swim” (for me, at least). These are wind, and light. If the water is still, and the light is good, you are guaranteed to have a magical swim. Sunrise and sunset became my sought-after times of day, and I even ended up transitioning into…a morning person. Ugh.

Midway through July, I had a disaster of a day. I was planning on heading to a recommended hidden gem, Beacon Tarn, which lies above Coniston. I found myself stuck in traffic. When I finally got to the lay-by I grabbed my stuff and ran up the hill to find the tarn, getting there just as the sun was setting. I was alone. The water was so still, save for some water skating insects and the occasional fish breaching. As I swam, the water looked like liquid metal, and gave off a luminescence in its brightness. It felt as if everything that had happened had held me back so that I could have this time.

It was such a strange experience to swim in half-darkness that I wanted to know if anyone would willingly swim at night. Turns out they do, and I found an article on the outdoor swimming society website about it. I found out about the phases of the moon and made a mental note to swim underneath the full September Harvest (as it is known in American folklore) moon.

When the date finally came around, I had had little uptake for companions (unsurprisingly), save for a couple of stoic friends. As we set off it felt a stupid idea and we laughed about it. Down by Grasmere lake it felt even more stupid but the conditions couldn’t have been better. The moon was huge, yellow, rising above Loughrigg and bearing down upon the lake, lighting it up end-to-end. We tentatively walked into the water and within a couple of minutes I had fallen on a rock and fully submerged myself, missing my opportunity to acclimatise. As I swam, my breath spread out before me and the darkness folded around me as the headtorch lights and chatter on the shore grew further away. Breathe. I felt my body ache with the cold and my mind resist the impulse to panic. Bats darted around me and skimmed the water for insects. Their proximity was alarming and I felt like an intruder. I didn’t swim far, but it was quiet, lonely, still, cold and the moon was my constant beacon.

When it was over, it was a different feeling to daytime swims. Through wild swimming, I’ve met and bonded with some truly amazing people and there is always laughter and shared satisfaction, but night swimming is quiet and sombre. It gives you space and makes the experience more personal. It is a unique experience to look at the moon and stars from the shining vessel of a Lake District tarn. The process is the same - slip into the water, one slow step at a time, lean into it and submerge finally. Aching collarbones, push through, pull through. Feel the resistance and breathe."

Events coming up

Autumn is a great time to get out and stargaze. The North Pennines Stargazing Festival is being held in various locations from 23 October – 3 November.


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