Meet the wild swimmer whose Yorkshire Dales dips are lighting up lockdown

Once deemed a rite of passage for any child in rural England, open water swimming has over recent years progressively become an enterprise of the urban elite.

There has been a huge boom in the number of outdoor city pools across the country, with a steep rise in the number of people taking up the sport in recent years.

But while there are world-famous waterfalls and rivers in your own backyard, says the Wildswimming Yorkshireman, it remains a 'swim in t'beck' after all.

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"Water has a tremendous power," says Johnny Hartnell, who is rapidly gathering followers on social media as he shares images of his adventures in the Yorkshire Dales.

Wild swimmer Johnny Hartnell dives into the River Doe near his home in IngletonWild swimmer Johnny Hartnell dives into the River Doe near his home in Ingleton
Wild swimmer Johnny Hartnell dives into the River Doe near his home in Ingleton

"I can't describe the magical pull of the water. Even just sitting by a river, or a lake, can make us feel better.

"There are big studies into mental health and water, and it really does work.

"We are just so lucky to have such fantastic bodies of water to play in here," he adds. "When you're in the water, looking at the sky, the world seems twice as big."

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The latest figures from Sport England, covering 2018, show more than 4.1m people swam in the nation's lakes, lochs, rivers and seas, with the number regularly swimming in wild waters nearly doubling in a year.

While it is classed as an outdoor activity, there are distinct warnings about the risks, and experts say only the most experienced should attempt it under lockdown, following strict rules and staying close to home.

For Mr Hartnell, born and raised in the Yorkshire Dales village of Ingleton, the River Greta winds its way down the bottom of his garden, supplied by the River Twiss and River Doe.

On a spring day, it can be as cool as tap water, he says, but never too cold to deter his daily dip. The coldest has been -1C, while the warmest waters in the Dales can reach 20C.

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"I'm lucky, very lucky, that this is all in my backyard," says Mr Hartnell, 51, an outdoors specialist at Inglesport in the village. "I spend my life in the rivers.

"It's become fashionable now, has wild swimming," he adds. "It was just 'swimming in t' beck, when we were kids.

"It's a lovely pastime, and a lovely passion."

So popular is the sport now that the Dales Dippers, a group set up by Mr Hartnell and three friends to share ideas and tips, now has over 2,000 members.

They arrange night swims across the county, torchlit swims, floodlit swims, and share warnings when they encounter any dangers such as undercurrents or high rivers.

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The group meetings are on hold, and while many of its members are still swimming, it isn't without its dangers and only the very experienced are attempting it.

They are just lucky, says Mr Hartnell, to be within walking distance of some of the nation's greatest beauty spots.

"We're so lucky to live under Ingleborough, we've got water in abundance," said Mr Hartnell. "We've got endless skies, and we do live in a beautiful place.

"People want to come here, they want to visit. We want everybody to return, and enjoy our pleasures, but safely, and right now, everything in the Dales is closed."

Guidelines for outdoor swimming during lockdown

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Swim England considers open water swimming a form of outdoor activity, but advises that only competent and experienced open water swimmers do so, while adhering to strict social distancing guidelines.

"Even then, we ask that swimmers consider the risks to themselves and others whilst participating in this activity as the majority of locations will not have lifeguards and there is a real risk of cold water shock at this time of year," it said.

Jane Nickerson, Swim England’s chief executive, said “it’s imperative” that even the most seasoned swimmers read the advice it has issued.

Swimmers are advised not to attempt it alone, but with a member from their household.

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