Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends
Forty miles doesn’t seem very far. You’d do it in forty minutes or less on the motorway. It might take you three hours or so on a bike and if you thought of walking non-stop for twelve hours you might cover the distance. Those forty miles took John Mather three years. But he was swimming, swimming in the cold, clouded waters of the English Lakes. And he didn’t start his project to swim the length of all the English Lakes until he was sixty.
Buttermere was easy, barely a mile long, and John and his friends “were blessed with a lovely night” on Tuesday, 17th June, 2014. John fortified himself with a good cup of tea and “a plain buttered scone fresh out of the oven” donated by the cafe-owner in the interests of keeping him going.
He and his friends began at the north western shingle bay (OS Grid Ref.: NY 173163) and swam to the south eastern roadside (OS Grid Ref.: NY 191154 ) “alongside the delightfully wood lined southern shore”.
Swimming, of course, is, of all the means of slow locomotion, the one that makes you, at one and the same time, most aware of your surroundings and least observant of the scenery. “Although the water is surprisingly warm for so early in the season, I struggle for the first quarter mile.” But once Mike has joined him, paddling alongside in his canoe, John writes, “I get into my stride and my stroke lengthens”. John is an aficionado of the breast-stroke.
And there is a kind of ecstasy in the activity: “What a wonderful night to be swimming in such flat, calm water! And it is sublime, just sublime. Water flows imperceptibly, inaudibly and at ease. There is something gloriously elemental and reassuring with being on water and surrounded by such storm tossed peaks.”
The swim took just under sixty minutes.
Other lakes presented greater challenges. At Wastwater, John found “an elemental savagery about the inspirational setting and the mountain scenery that takes your breath away”. But being the deepest lake it is cold, frigid, and when John begins his swim, the water is so cold he immediately has a throbbing headache. It is a condition known to the initiated as “ice-cream head”. After two miles, as the wind freshens and the waves break awkwardly, he feels a slight twinge of cramp in his right calf. The climb from their landing place to the road is an even greater trial as they beat their way through brambles “that snag, jag and tear our bare legs and feet something horrible”.
The 10.5 miles along Windermere were the ultimate challenge. It must “be respected as an ocean”. Even Captain Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel in 1875, declared “that conditions were too trying to attempt a crossing of the lake”. The length of the lake was first swum in 1911. Joseph D. Foster of Oldham accomplished the feat in 11 hours 29 minutes. John Mather chose to swim the length of Windermere in four sessions on four successive days. And who can blame him.
It is quite something to swim the length of all fourteen lakes – swimmers aren’t allowed in the reservoirs of Thirlmere, Haweswater and Elterwater – and no mean feat to do it when you’re in your sixties. John Mather is understandably proud of his achievement.