Swimming in the tarns of Lakeland


Anyone would think that “open water” or “wild” swimming was an invention of the 21st century. Yes, it is enjoying immense popularity at the moment, but I’m very proud to reflect that my grandfather, who died in 1995, was a pioneer as a swimmer as well as an artist.

William Heaton Cooper was a remarkable man, an outdoor painter who did much of his work on the spot – often high up in the fells – and then completing it in his studio.

William Heaton Cooper

He was a rock climber, taking part in several first ascents on Lakeland crags and having links with the pioneers of the sport, and his expert knowledge of the crags is evident in his mountain paintings. His meticulous drawings of the crags, the routes carefully delineated, have long been used in the official climbing guides to the crags, which he illustrated for decades, and he was an honorary member of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club.

But in the hollows of his beloved fells and rocks, in the many tarns of the Lake District, he would swim – and he would paint those beautiful waters. Of his three major books of his paintings, The Tarns of Lakeland (1960) has been hailed as a masterpiece, for the quality of his sensitive writing as well as his exquisite art.

He writes about the familiar – Sprinkling Tarn – “I can only hope that my painting and the text will inspire any who do not already know the tarn to go and make friends with it” and the lesser known – Bowscale Tarn – “a strange place, a dark and serious place, where laughter would somehow seem amiss.” It’s my favourite book, and one that I was discussing recently with Pete Kelly* who runs an open water swimming business and who shares my appreciation of my grandfather’s sensitivity, and appreciation of the tarns.

Alcock Tarn by William Heaton Cooper

William was in his seventies when I was young, so he didn’t join us on too many family outings, but his spirit of adventure lived on in my father, John, and my uncle Julian, and was deeply ingrained in us all. Family days out with dad and my two brothers usually involved us all piling into a very old Land Rover and heading off to explore the nearby caves, quarries and lakes.

Later, I was driven to seek out many places that were dear to my grandfather. We spent many summers swimming at Penny Rock on Grasmere with dad and the family, jumping off rocks and playing in the weir. Grandfather painted one of my favourite paintings there, unusually for a landscape artist, one that depicts his family: my grandmother, my father and uncle Julian are there.

Blackbeck Tarn by William Heaton Cooper

I still have lovely memories of dad lighting campfires there as the light faded towards the end of the day. We all knew the faint tree-lined path well enough in the dark, it took us back to the tiny hole in the wall where the Land Rover waited. I still know that path well to this day and it still evokes childhood thoughts of pixies and fairies.

Living now on the shores of Loughrigg Tarn, my own children have taken to the water with that same spirit of adventure. And while a great deal is written now about places to swim, here and in other wild places, grandfather’s book remains the very best guide to swimming in the Lake District. His knowledge of the local geography, geology and history add so much of value, along with the obvious passion for this beautiful landscape.

Evening dip, Loughrigg Tarn

William Heaton Cooper recalled his own father, my great-grandfather, also an acclaimed artist, Alfred Heaton Cooper: “For many years my father had a small hut just below the summit (of Loughrigg) where we would go and camp for days on end, living like savages, cooking on a trench oven, swimming in the tarns and falling off rocks – the very best holiday education for youngsters. We would sleep out on the dry turf in the heat of summer and wake up with dew on our faces.”

Today the studio and gallery remains an altar to mountain art, as the Lake District Centre for the Interpretation of the Landscape, and William Heaton-Cooper’s paintings are starting to come into their own now, more than 20 years after his death. There have been many great Lake District painters, but I think of him as the best. I hope to keep the interest in his paintings and books alive by revealing the best of our extensive archive and making them more accessible. We have so much to show from the archive that has rarely been seen, including works of sculpture from my grandmother, Ophelia Gordon-Bell.

*Pete Kelly is the Adventure Swimming Director at Swim the Lakes in Ambleside, www.swimthelakes.co.uk.

Heaton cooperSwimmingSwimming in the lake districtThe tarns of lakelandWild swimming