What is the opposite of a well tempered pool? Our author travels to Snowdonia in Wales to see where swimming stops and wild swimming begins
I’m sitting at the edge of Lake Llydaw on the foothills of Mount Snowdon, watching the rain hit the water sideways. As the cloud thickens and breathes again, the vertical wall of the mountain disappears from view then resurfaces. So persistent is the Welsh downpour, it has seeped through my waterproofs and filled my boots. I no longer know where the rain begins and my body ends. I can’t say the weather is screaming for a swim. Will I even feel the water if I go in, I wonder? Will it feel different to the water streaming from the sky? There is, of course, only one way to find out.
Getting undressed when the air temperature is 10 degrees and you are already drenched is definitely on the sadistic side of the pleasure spectrum but to a swimming nerd like me, also strangely exhilarating. As I enter the waters of Llydaw – considered by some to be the coldest lake in the UK – I feel like Obelix has dropped his boulder on my chest. “Oh. My. God.” squeezes out of my lungs between gasps. My plea travels over the icy lake. God, I’m pretty sure, is not listening. But the mountain is. I’m taken right into the bosom of her being. Had there been one, an onlooker may have pointed and said: “Nutter!” But at that very moment, I feel anything but crazy. I am alone. My body is humming on a cellular level. It’s as if I’ve been plugged into the elements of life.
Is this it, I think? Is this where wild swimming begins? I have often wondered what wild swimming means exactly? Here in the UK, it has pretty much come to mean moving in a body of water that is not a pool. Yet in Germany, where I grew up swimming in the lakes of Bavaria, that activity has always been and still is simply referred to as swimming. So perhaps this right here – loss of feeling in fingers and toes included – is what it’s about: a sensory surge you can’t replicate; a momentary pause – augmented, pregnant – in the current of life.
As my usual swimming ritual consists of a weekly dip in the Hampstead Ladies Pond in London, I wanted to plan an adventure that would allow the space for wilderness to creep in. I was hungry for the unknown, eager to tread new waters. After much deliberation, I decide to immerse myself in a landscape completely foreign to me, a mountainous region referred to in the legends of King Arthur and where a variety of lakes abound: Snowdonia National Park in Wales. Here they said, nature, was as untouched as when the world became.
As there are 250 lakes to choose from in the 2000km2 park, it was hard to narrow my selection down to a weekend taster, but following a little research, I chose to tackle the lakes and waterfalls surrounding the highest peak in Wales, the much-loved Mount Snowdon. Of course upon setting off, I wasn’t aware that Snowdonia counts as the wettest place in Wales, averaging 270 wet days and about 3m of rainfall per year. But it became obvious soon enough.
And this is how I now find myself perched on a granite boulder in the glacial waters of Lake Llydaw hugging myself for warmth. I stare at the pile of drenched clothes on the waters-edge and wonder how I will get back into them. Feeling like I’ve been slapped by a wet fish, I hang out on this Baltic outpost a bit longer communing with the mountain. Some might call it procrastination. Back on the shore, I am hugely grateful for my last-minute gear investment, a bright red towel-come-jacket called a ‘dryrobe’. Putting it on is like getting a warm hug from a naked Viking.
Getting dressed into wet clothes when you are already soaking is a kerfuffle to be sure, but because I have lost all sensation in my hands and feet, even that becomes an amusing event. I laugh – hysteria may have kicked in – while I shiver and slip, struggling with wet socks and an even wetter rain jacket. As the glow of the rapidly setting sun attempts to break through the tenacious clouds, colouring the sky in yellows and pinks like the brushstrokes in JMW Turner painting, I am lured past grazing sheep and glistening boulders that sit like ogre’s knuckles in the hills, back to the beginning of the trail at Pen-Y-Pass just before darkness sets in.
After a cosy night in a camping pod nearby – complete with bedding, heating and hallelujah, a dry room – I set off for the Waterfalls on the Watkins Path, before the early morning mist has lifted. The day, it appears, is going to be a Welsh anomaly: dry and sunny. The trail begins in the forest where Komorebi, that magical expression that only exists in Japanese, is in full effect. The canopy glimmers as the morning rays filter through the leaves, dazzling me to the absolute. As if entranced by the pied piper of plants, I walk deeper into the woods.
Thirty minutes later I emerge onto a wide, open expanse. Here isolated trees sit on the edge of a low ridge and keep watch as water flows off the mountain and into deep, clear rock-pools. It’s an Athena poster come to life. It’s a travel influencer’s wet dream. It’s got “hash-tag me” written all over it. But somehow sharing this spot seems like a violation. I have arrived at the beginning of time. These rock pools, gathered in little pockets at the base of the mountain, are like Snowdon’s tears of laughter and sorrow. Delicate displays of emotion, they whisper: “I am the land. Tread gently here.”
Although I know it’s going to be ice-cream headache cold, getting into the water is a no-brainer. I let the tears of the mountain flow through my fingers. You can’t buy that at Burger King. Following my aquatic ablution, I summit Snowdon – a bit of a steep clamber at the end – and descend the trail on the other side. So distracted am I by the beauty of the landscape that I veer off the path directly into what looks like the gully of death, a rock-face so steep, I’m surprised I don’t stumble across human skulls and other hiking remnants. I manage to clamber down to safety somehow, although my efforts are decidedly more walrus than mountain goat.
After the six-hour Snowdon expedition, I’m sweaty and exhausted but also desperate to cool off in nearby Lake Gwynant. Tempted by the idea of a longer swim, I squeeze into my wetsuit. Tow-float trailing behind me, I swim towards the sun setting over the peak of Snowdon on the far side of the lake. Although I can barely see my hands as they glide through the rust-coloured water, my mind slowly empties with every bubbly exhalation.
In the middle of the lake, I turn onto my back and look up at the clouds. Sandwiched between the natural up-thrust of the water and the immensity of the sky pouring onto my front, I am weightless, burden-free. I am an astronaut, right here on earth. Who am I, a philosopher might think at this point? What’s it all about? My answer: pizza. Never underestimate the hunger induced by a solid swim-hike-swim combo. An epic day calls for an epic meal, which I discover, is only possible in the quiet nearby village of Beddgelert, if you reach it before 7pm. After that it’s lights out.
Despite sleeping like an upturned cow, deep as if medicated, I somehow manage to get up at 5.30am to reach Lake Dinas before sunrise. I approach the lake in near darkness, clutching my still wet bathing suit and question whether this early morning mission was a good idea. I could go back to bed. Or just sit here, I think. But as I watch the thick mist coming off the water and the subtle changes in light, the lake calls to me. I enter the dark and inky water, delivering myself to the elements. It’s cold yes, eerie even, like scenery in a Grimm fairy-tale. Along the shores, the saturated greens of the trees slowly materialise from the monochrome palette, as ducklings swim past. Then suddenly, like a perfect Rorschach blot, the reflection of the hills is mirrored in the lake. Yes, I think. It’s better to have swum and shivered than not to have swum at all, as always you emerge from the water a little bit changed.
I devour a hearty breakfast at the friendly Caffi Gwynant nearby before setting off for the final swim spot of the trip, Llyn Yr Arddu, on the upper flanks of the craggy Yr Arddu mountain. This lake, I realise, is so off the beaten track that there actually is no track and I end up having to ascend, what appears like a rock face more suited to Alex Honnold of Free Solo fame than little old swimmer me. But clutching onto heather and rock to heave myself higher, I make my way up the steep incline. Foolish, I think. You’ve got children back home. It’s like Into Thin Air, but in Wales. I consider turning back numerous times and begin to wonder whether that saying, if a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound applies to wild swimmers? A tiny bit further I keep saying to myself, just a tiny bit further.
Mercifully the landscape plateaus out somewhat before I have a chance to fall off the mountain. I clamber through deep grassy bog-land, the earth swallowing my feet with every step. Nearly there I think. Nearly there. And then, just like that, Llyn Yr Arddu appears before me. Crisp, alone, wild. As blue checked dragonflies dance at the waters edge and Welsh clouds swirl in the sky, I make my way into the water. Grateful that I didn’t give up. Grateful for the solitude. Grateful that – for a brief moment – I am not merely lost in the landscape, but have become a part of it.