Wild swimming in Lake Wood, Uckfield
I run my own business, have a partner who has two young kids and we permanently seem to be travelling, either in and out of London, or up, down and across the country; managing logistics and spinning an entire dinner set of plates. But being the ambitious types, we also tend to pack our weekends full, so it’s rare that we have a quiet time together. After a particularly busy week, burning the candle at both ends, we opted for a relaxed one.
Since deciding to document my dips, I’ve been more inquisitive about wild swimming and hungry to find spots to swim, hoovering up tips about local watering holes and new places to visit. It’s part of the pleasure of it: seeking and finding information. I’ve been enviously enjoying Andrew Fusek Peters’ Dip: Wild swims from the Borderlands a book that records his year-round swims on the Shropshire Welsh/English border. On Saturday morning, I allowed myself the luxury of a lie in, listening to the birds singing and the trees swaying outside my window, sipping coffee and devouring Dip. My parter Howard was slumbering besides me. There was something quite delicious about lazing about so luxuriously in bed, whilst reading about plunging into cold Welsh rivers.
Later on, with our June afternoon looking more and more like autumn, we were looking for adventure and so turned to my Wild Swimming book for inspiration. This is a great manual for finding little-known lakes, rivers and streams to swim in. Although Sussex is arguably (and at least in my eyes anyway) the most beautiful county in England, with the exception of the Channel, it does seem to be a bit lacking in spots to swim.
A quick dive into Wild Swimming, however, revealed a few ideas and we got in the car and drove half an hour to Uckfield, just north of Lewes. One of the things I love about living in Brighton is that within ten minutes in the car, you can be soaring along the rim of the Downs, with nothing but rolling pastoral views around you. We drove along the A27 passing signs for farm shops and fresh asparagus and were unable to resist the stalls selling cherries in a lay-by.
The sat nav didn’t quite guide us there, so we found our way up through Uckfield, round the back and down Rocks Road until we got to a small parking space next to a wooden fence, with a Nature Reserve sign. You could blink and miss it. There were two cars parked and we pulled in behind. We scampered through woods that contained all the russets and reds of autumn, as well as green moss, twisted tree roots and giant boulders, almost reminiscent of the Beng Melay temple in Cambodia, reclaimed by nature.
Besides a shifty group of lads toking on a jazz cigarette, we were the only people in the woods and the instant healing power of nature took hold as I felt my mind’s eye receding from the distraction of blue-light screens, and hone into the tiniest detail of plant life and leaves. “The earth exhales…”
After scampering around in the woods for ten minutes or so, we came upon the lake. It’s in an almost magical glade, rounded by grotto caves and carpeted in daffodil yellow lily pads, a sight I had only ever seen once before, on a lake in India. Other than a dad, hauling his stand-up paddle board ashore with his two kids, there was nobody. It started to rain lightly and the brown, cold water looked foreboding. It is always at this point with a wild swim, that I start to get nervous. What if it’s cold? What if I get a chill? What on earth is on the bottom? But I recalled the encouraging words of Andrew Peters Fusk who is also reticent before dipping every time, only always to swim and never to regret it.
I undressed hurriedly, before I could change my mind. It helped that I had boasted to the aforementioned dad. He was expecting me to go in and the drama queen in me didn’t want to disappoint. I was worried about depth, so I asked his daughter to measure the bottom with her paddle. It was a few feet drop at this launch point, so I was glad to know where I’d be putting my feet. I couldn’t convince my partner to come in too (he stayed by the shore, photographing and acting as my back up, which wasn’t so bad). I had one final deliberation before realising that the small kids had been paddling and got their legs wet and “dammit” I thought - “if they can, I can.”
I put my toes in at the root of a tree stump and felt the spread of water. It was less cold than I had anticipated, given I’ve been dipping in the sea since February. I launched in.
There’s nothing like the feeling of cutting through cold, wild water. I looked up and all I could see around me was sky, reeds, caves and lily pads. My spirits lifted as I breathed out, feeling the ground drop beneath me and taking in the natural sights around. Instantly I felt uplifted and at one with the natural world, the pains and aches and anxieties of the week falling away with every stroke.
The magical glade of Lake Wood could be an otherworldy place, were it not for the hum of the A-road in the background interrupting the illusion. Rain started lightly on the surface of the lake and, much to the delight of the dad and his kids, my partner and one fisherman, who jumped with surprise when he saw me and insisted on introducing himself, I was alone with the water.
I’d like to say that I swam all the way to the other side to the caves, but I was alone and kept losing my nerve. It was delicious to swim out to the middle of the lake and look out into the lilies and caves, then turn back to my partner, smiling at me from the banks. It was with great regret that I finally emerged, 20 minutes later and just before a downpour. I dressed hurriedly, the slime in the my hair the only slightly offputting thing about the experience.
I’d been feeling low all day, the vestiges of a hangover and virus made me sluggish. But after my swim I felt alive, attuned, to all that is good in the world. We made our way home for a long shower and a Lancashire hot pot and were tucked up in bed by 10pm.