A destination less obvious for outdoor swimming, the Peak District has some real gems hidden among its hills and gorges. Rowan Clarke navigates through mermaid mysteries, limestone gorges and literary parkland
When it comes to inland outdoor swimming, the Lake District undoubtedly holds the trump card. It’s the obvious choice, and it’s where I began outdoor swimming, travelling there with three of my best friends year after year for the Great North Swim at Lake Windermere.
But a hundred miles south-east, a quieter, less touristy national park equals the Lakes for beauty, drama, literary credentials and wild swimming. We swapped Wordsworth for Austen and glassy lakes for majestic parkland, craggy gorges and eerie tarns when we went wild dipping in the beautiful Peak District.
Driving across the High Peak’s rolling moorland, we began our adventure with a dip in a legendary tarn known as the Mermaid’s Pool, or Black Mere Pond, near Leek in Staffordshire. I’m not easily spooked by ghost tales, but it wasn’t just the cool morning that made me shiver. The legend goes that a beautiful woman rejected an admirer’s advances, and so he accused her of witchcraft and she was subsequently drowned in the tarn. Days later, he was found drowned in the same pool, his face shredded by talons.
People have claimed to have seen the demon-mermaid over the years. In the nineteenth century some foolhardy locals attempted to drain the pool, but their efforts were curtailed by the furious mermaid who threatened to flood nearby towns unless they hopped it, which they did.
Even today, people say that animals refuse to drink from the pool and that birds will never fly across it. It’s also claimed to be bottomless. It was almost deserted when we parked in the layby opposite and clambered down a mossy bank to the water’s edge. My friend Pam had been reading us the legends as we drove there, and we were feeling less than confident as we explored the boggy surrounds for the best point to ease in.
The water was viscous, a deep orangey-brown and cold, maybe 12 degrees. We dared each other to swim into the middle, though only two of us had the mettle, and the moment something brushed against Elly’s leg, we were pretty quick to swim back to shore.
Mr Darcy's Chatsworh
Having brushed with a demon-mermaid, our next encounter with Georgian aristocracy was far more civilised. ‘There’s no finer county in England than Derbyshire,’ wrote Jane Austen in her most renowned novel, Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s connection with the Peak District runs deeply; she’s said to have completed the last few chapters of Pride and Prejudice while staying in Bakewell in 1811, and the fictional Darcy residence, Pemberley, is based on country estate, Chatsworth.
Indeed, this is where both the film and TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice chose as Pemberley. Mr Darcy himself, played by Colin Firth, famously stripped off and plunged into a pool in the gardens, which are open to the public along with Chatsworth House. The imposing seat of the Duke of Devonshire on the banks of the River Derwent holds an impressive collection of paintings, furniture, Old Master drawings and neoclassical sculptures.
Capability Brown straightened and deepened the River Derwent between the two weirs in Chatsworth’s parkland, and it was here that we took our second swim. Dropping down from the carpark to the riverbank, we followed the Derwent upstream towards the house until we found a dip in the sandy bank where we could wriggle into our swimming costumes as subtly as possible.
It was late in the afternoon and off-season, so there weren’t too many people around. Nevertheless, we did feel a little self-conscious, especially as my friends decided that they wanted to wear their wetsuits – discreetly putting on a wetsuit is no mean feat. But it was worth it for a serene swim upstream where heads-up breaststroke is the only way to appreciate the aristocratic scenery. We felt that had Jane Austen had the opportunity she’d have done the same, but minus the neoprene.
After a night in a village called Little Longstone, we travelled a mile-and-a- half for our last swim of the weekend. Just off the road from Cressbrook is a footpath behind the mill development. Following the narrow path around the back of houses, we crossed a weir to a limestone gorge where people were rock climbing. You can dip in the pool here, or follow the footpath along the River Wye.
This is a perfect spot for the kind of walking for which the Peak District is best known; four miles upstream is Chee Gorge. It’s also a fabulous spot for families, as there are stepping stones and shallow paddling opportunities.
We found a quiet spot along the path away from the climbers to change and venture into the river. Being close to source, the river was achingly chilly but fresh and sublime. As we swam, the sun shone down on us. We could see sheep and walkers on the craggy hill behind us and felt that this archetypical Peak District swim was the perfect way to finish our wild swimming adventure in this beautiful region.
Where to stay
We stayed in an Airbnb cottage in Little Longstone near the superb Packhorse Inn. Ilam Hall YHA is also well worth a stay.
What to expect
A vast variety of wild freshwater swims in tarns, rivers, gorges and streams and fantastic hiking.
What not to expect
Warm water at any time of the year – even in September, water was between 10-14 degrees C.
A bit of research will help you work out how accessible swim spots are; how long a walk across what kind of terrain. Wildswimming. com is worth a visit for these and many other swims in the Peak District.