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Wild swimming walks Lake District

The best wild swimming walks in the Lake District

Author and swim guide Pete Kelly shares his favourite swim-hikes from his book, Wild Swimming Walks Lake District

With so many classic walks and swims in the Lake District, it is impossible for me to ever settle on even a handful of favourites. However, I feel wild swimming walks below offer something special to the Lake District visitor, or local alike. I hope they stimulate the reader to engage in more adventurous swimming and to make the most of their time here.

Happy swimming!

Keswick, Catbells and Derwentwater shoreline

Keswick is the geographical hub of outdoor adventure in the north Lakes, and for good reason. It is well connected with rail and motorway networks and is in a perfect position to access the nearby fells, rivers and lakes nearby.

Keswick is a lively market town with good and varied accommodation, loads of outdoor shops and some of the best cafes and pubs in the region.

Most of the Derwentwater shoreline enjoys good access for swimming and the Keswick Launch Company operates a regular shuttle service between Keswick and Hawse End during the summer season.

Hawse End is a perfect place to begin this walk. The drive from Keswick is short and there is parking nearby if you arrive early.

The walk from Hawse End up onto the ridgeline that leads to Catbells (and the impressive fells beyond) is a classic. For many folk, the hike up Catbells provided the very first taste of Lake District fell walking and what a perfect way to start! The climb provides just the right amount of challenge without ever being too daunting, and the panoramic views en route just don’t get any better.

The inviting view of Derwentwater is ever present during the walk and to swimmers the aerial view of its bays and islands below are fascinating. Upon descending the fellside, the serious task of exploring the bays and islands from the water can get underway.

Beginning with the lovely walk through the woods of Manesty Park towards Great Bay, take the time to explore the many bays here including Myrtle, Abbot’s, and Brandelhow Bay.

If you are a confident and experienced swimmer, leave a bit of time to visit St Herbert’s Island further along the lake, just opposite the launch jetty. The swim to the island is a round trip of about 2km and is a perfect island to explore, with some exiting and exposed swimming to get to it. The island is named after Saint Herbert, a 7th-century anchorite who influenced the spread of Christianity in the region and attracted a host of pilgrims during his time there.

From Hawse End the return journey is straightforward and allows plenty of time to explore the shops, cafes, and bars of Keswick.

Harrop and Blea Tarn, Wythburn Fell

As a swimmer as well as a mountaineer, I feel that I must stick up for the Wythburn Fells. Boggy they may be, but they are home to some damn good swimming and the mixed woodland that now flourishes along the borders of Thirlmere is a pleasure to walk through. I make no apology then for this route that aims to make the best of both and leave it to the reader to make their own conclusions about its worth; just remember to pack a spare pair of socks.

The steep walk up through the pine trees is enhanced by the views of Helvellyn to the east and by the attractive falls and cascades of Dob Gill. Emerging from the dense woodland into the open space surrounding Harrop Tarn is always a pleasant surprise.

The hike to the top passes quicker than expected, although this may be due to the anticipation of the swim. First impressions, drawn from the immediate surroundings and encroaching mass of sedge, water horsetail and yellow water lily is that there is not much water here to swim in at all. But never fear, access to the water becomes apparent on further inspection. The cool water has a wonderful golden colour if the sunlight is streaming through it as you swim, encouraging the odd dive to the roots of the lilies to gaze up through the shimmering water.

The route to Blea Tarn follows the meander of Mosshause Gill, which flows into Harrop Tarn, and threads through a lush mixed woodland dotted with great outcrops of sphagnum moss. Blea Tarn itself provides a lovely place to swim and has a nice open aspect, lovely in good weather but rather exposed in wind, and can provide the perfect picnic spot at which to loiter on a fine day.

The return journey via the much besmirched broad boggy ridge of Armboth Fell and back along the shores of Thirlmere complete a fine day of walking and swimming in a much overlooked part of the Lakes.

Bleaberry Tarn, High Stile and Buttermere

Wild swimming walks Lake District

The Buttermere fells are considered by many, including Wainwright, to be the most beautiful in the Lake District. The tarns and lakes here mirror that beauty and offer unsurpassed swimming opportunities.

This walk makes the best of both worlds by taking in the classic ridge walk to High Stile, visiting the wonderful Bleaberry Tarn along the way and returning via the eminently swimmable shores of Buttermere.

If you are a lover of the mountains and the terrain that surrounds them, then you are destined to be smitten when visiting the Buttermere Valley for the first time. The beautiful ribbon lakes carved out by the glaciers of the last ice age fill the valley, while the impressive fell tops of Red Pike, High Stile, Haystacks, Fleetwith Pike, Dale Head, Hindsgarth and Robinson encircle the head of the valley, forming a crenellated amphitheatre that takes the breath away.

The walk up to Bleaberry Tarn is brutal, but height is gained quickly, and you can be sure to have the tarn to yourself if you plan to swim in its particular clear and cool waters. The walk to High Stile via Red Pike provides the ideal post-swim warm up and gives a tantalising view of Buttermere down below.

Following the descent down Scarth Gap Pass, the walk back to the village alongside the lake is a joy. Whichever way you choose to return around the lake, clockwise or anticlockwise, you will not be short of perfect places to swim. The lake is surrounded by shallow pebble lined bays and the cool water that flows into the lake from Warnscale and Gatesgarth Becks is as clear as crystal.

As if life couldn’t get any better, Syke Farm back in Buttermere village sells the best ice cream in the Lakes and a visit there provides the perfect end to a big day out.

Windermere, Wray Castle and the Latterbarrow Ramble

This walk is right on my home patch and when I was up on my roof repairing tiles last year I could just make out the summit of Latterbarrow through the trees.

It is always satisfying to include a visit to a castle on a walking route, even if it is something of a folly. Wray Castle was built in the Gothic Revival style in 1840 along with St Margaret’s Church, by retired Liverpool surgeon, Dr James Dawson, using his wife’s inheritance froma gin fortune. Apparently, she showed her contempt for it by refusing to live there, which is a shame because it has very good lake access and would have been perfect for her morning swim.

From the castle, the walk up to Latterbarrow follows comparatively quiet paths through the rolling countryside of Claife, passing the secluded Blelham Tarn along the way. The tarn and the bog surrounding it are a Site of Specific Scientific Interest as well as a Natural Nature Reserve and at the right time of year the reeds around the tarn bristle with birds and waterfowl. Latterbarrow is one of those rare things in the Lake District, namely, a summit with fantastic views that is easily accessed!

The vista from the summit is remarkable for such a diminutive hill and the ramble down to the Windermere shoreline through the woodlands of Claife Heights is easy on the legs and full of interest. The walk along the side of Windermere provides plenty of opportunity for swimming and to explore the interesting shoreline.

The Wild Swimmers’ Code

We enjoy very accessible wild swimming in the Lakes and are free to swim where we want
with a few exceptions. Please follow the Wild Swimmers Code:

  1. With freedom comes responsibility: Take appropriate safety equipment and clothing
    and swim responsibly, there are no lifeguards in the Lakes.
  2. Be careful where you park, camp, light a fire and how you behave. Respect everything
    and everyone, rural environments and economies are more delicate than you think.
    Support and help protect them.
  3. Stop the Spread of non-native invasive species: check, clean and dry equipment,
    clothing and dogs before moving on to swim elsewhere!
  4. Consider your location: Is it appropriate to be swimming there? Be aware of delicate
    natural habitats, overuse, and the location of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (which
    are protected by law).
    Visit the Lakes and beyond to swim, but please love it, and look after it.

Wild Swimming Walks, Lake District is available from and all good book shops – £14.99.

This article is from the August 2022 issue of Outdoor Swimmer.

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Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.