Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Challenge Number 28: Bathe in a natural body of water

My grandfather in Grasmere, Colin Dodgson, was many things. Mumbler, skinflint and scruff might be the first words that spring to mind. He usually had his trousers held up with battered braces and a roll of string. He was also the creator of such village scandal that he was evicted from the church choir.

On a kinder note, for years he ran the Grasmere Tea Gardens by the river Rothay, and at one point owned two of the adjacent shops as well, selling scones, gifts and hiking boots long before the village became full of similar establishments. He kept the hiking boot shop until he was in his seventies. In the 1960s, he built his own house, brick by brick, halfway up a mountain. The house had incredible views across the vale of Grasmere, with a steep sloping woodland garden full of azaleas and a pond fed by an icy mountain stream that he swam in without fail every Christmas morning.

He loved classical music and opera, playing them at ever increasing volume as his hearing faded over the years. He loved Glyndebourne and owned a baby grand piano, though he couldn’t play a note on it.

Partially blind in one eye, he was exempt from normal soldier duties and spent World War Two as a radar operator in the Home Guard in Norfolk.

He drove a Volvo, which is perhaps just as well as his driving was terrible. He was once stopped and breathalysed by the police on New Year’s Eve on suspicion of being drunk at the wheel, as he’d been veering all over the road. The irony being that Grandad was pretty much teetotal.

However, what he would most like to be remembered for are two great physical feats. He was the first person in the whole world to climb all the mountains in England, Scotland and Wales that are over 2,000 feet high. In his youth, he dragged my grandmother with him, and they rode between the fells on a tandem. My grandmother always described being stuck on the ridge of Aonach Eagach with him in a storm as one of the worst experiences of her life. In later years, he was a more solitary walker, sleeping at night in the back of his trusty Volvo. Most of his walking was done in winter, as back then Grasmere had a strictly seasonal tourist trade, and he could shut up shop between November and March.

My grandfather’s second great physical feat was tarn bagging. In the 1950s, Grandad and his friend Tim Tyson decided to swim in every single Lakeland tarn they could find. As documented here , here and here, by 1959 they’d swum in around 460 (and eventually reached a grand total of 534). Once again, they set to their task during the winter months, often having to break ice on the top of each tarn first. And apparently they didn’t bother with swimming trunks in those subzero temperatures. Yikes.

Grandad was interviewed about his exploits by the side of a small tarn on Naddle Fell for ITV by Brian Trueman (who I have just discovered subsequently wrote and narrated Jamie And The Magic Torch) in 1965. So it was this tarn I decided to pick for my swim in a natural body of water, as a little homage to my grandfather.

Managing a Jubilee break to Grasmere, where my father returned to live after retirement, I found a quick moment of sunshine between toddler activities (“more swings, more drawing, more Beebies”) to attempt my swim. Dave stayed at my dad’s house with a napping Charlotte and I left myself at the mercy of my father and his directions, which rather worryingly featured the word “vaguely” in every other sentence. It had, after all, been nearly 50 years since a member of my family had last visited the tarn. There was no path up to it, so we had to scramble up from the A591 through bracken and over loose rock to what looked like a promising dip in the shelter of trees. Things briefly took a frustrating turn when the dip turned out to be just a patch of grass, but thankfully over the next hillock, we found the tarn. Except that the tarn was now absolutely choking with pondweed and completely unswimmable. Not to be deterred, I stripped off (to a swimsuit, I hasten to add – none of my grandfather’s boldness here, especially not with my father standing next to me equipped with a camera) and went and sat in it. The water wasn’t as cold as I had expected (though was still on the cusp of bloody cold), which is perhaps why the mutant pondweed had flourished so.

Below are some photos. I realise that no one wants to look at a picture of me in a swimsuit, but as always, you need the evidence. I particularly like the one of my father looking lost in the bracken, carrying my towel in a plastic bag. As you can see, the tarn’s setting is simply lovely.

It was a jolly jaunt, but due to the technical difficulties experienced I’ve had to change the name of this challenge from swim to BATHE in a natural body of water. I may yet manage a swim somewhere else, but as Charlotte developed an abject terror of her own grandfather while we were away, it’s unlikely to be in the Lake District any time soon.

After all this fanatical walking and swimming, Grandad had the strength of an ox and one reason it took so long for the brain tumour he developed in 1991 to kill him was that his heart was just too powerful to stop beating. He was a stubborn Dodgson right to the end. Shopkeeper, café owner, builder, opera lover, mountain climber and tarn plunger: Grandad, this challenge was for you.


  1. Beautiful pics, and love he story!

  2. This is such a touching story my favourite so far. A great challenge spanning the generations. Marsh

  3. Hello can you please get in touch with me as we are related ( your grandfathers wife was my Aunt Rita) I am trying to piece together a family history Contact me on