Ellerton Park: My First Open Water Swim for 12 months!

Yesterday evening I made my way to Ellerton Park to meet up with Mark Robson to do my first open water swim of the year.

I’d got there earlier than planned and walked around the grassy banks to take in the beautiful view. It’s a lovely place, and the weather, whilst still chilly was wonderfully sunny.

After I’d paid my £3.50 swimming fee, I was chatting to a few divers who were preparing to get in, when Mark and his son Charlie arrived. Mark immediately jumped out of his car and shook hands. It was good to meet the guy who had single-handedly provided me with so much information about open water swimming. It’s the first time I’d met Mark.

“Are you nervous?” he asked.

I decided to stick to the truth, rather than put on any false bravado. I find honesty is always the best policy!

“Yes”, I replied “I’ve not been in Open water since last June, before I had my back operation”. I was also nervous because I didn’t want to slow anyone down if there were plans to swim in convoy, as I knew Mark to be considerably faster than me.

We waited whilst another swimmer, Jo and her daughter Verity arrived and then got ourselves ready for the off.

As we walked to the little jetty Mark casually asked:

“How do you feel about things being in the water?”

Er. “What kind of things Mark?” I asked, studiously keeping any apprehension from my voice.

“Well, there’s a few things down there to make life interesting for the divers. There’s a boat or two at the bottom of some of the buoys, and apparently there’s a caravan down there too. There are teddy bears tied on to some and they look at bit weird as they’re all covered in mosses and things”

“Oh” I said with relief, “That doesn’t sound too bad”

Mark continued “There’s also a manikin doll down there as well, that the divers use to scare the newbie divers, they turn it over every so often……..”

“Really?” I said, as casually as I could manage. Oh hell. Boats and caravans don’t freak me out, but if I saw a human shape looming at the bottom of the lake, I’m fairly sure I would crap myself. However, doing the Channel for me is a massive exercise in pushing myself past any limiting beliefs. So, here was another opportunity to go a little more outside of my comfort zone. That’s how I get used to it. Dive in and get on with it. Every time I swim outdoors, I try to focus on what’s in my mind so that I can keep it calm (but more of this later……)

I reckon Mark would normally jump in straight off the jetty. I don’t do that – I go in three stages, waistline (Say goodbye to the wedding tackle), shoulders (brrr) and finally head (the “Slush-puppy Brainfreeze”).

Mark gladly took the stairs and we quickly got in up to our shoulders. As we breast-stroked to the first buoy I told Mark that I always had to concentrate on keeping my breathing in check when first dipping my head under water doing front-crawl in such cold water. His advice was to start dipping my head in every third stroke of breaststroke to get used to it before going straight into front crawl. It was good advice – it felt a lot easier than what I used to do. Simple yet effective. Thanks once again Mark!

As we approached the second buoy, Jo was already off and running (well, swimming), and Mark set off in hot pursuit. I’ll be honest, at first I was a little perturbed as I’m so used to having a canoe to my side, I felt a little exposed. It just goes to show how much I got used to the comfort factor of either having someone swimming next to me, or a canoe nearby.

Still, the good thing is that it makes you then resolve to get your head down and get on with it. The water was definitely on the cool side, but I was happy enough that the sun was shining and taking some solace in the fact that without it, it would have felt a damn sight colder.

The next stretch was out to the fourth buoy, which is way out in the middle of the lake, and further than I thought at first. The water must be quite a bit deeper there too, as it’s definitely more chilly around that buoy marker. I realised that my sighting (the ability to look up every so often to keep oneself heading in the right direction) had got poor through lack of practice. Never mind, that’ll come back with more visits.

Don’t ask me why, but I always give buoy a wide berth, as the “hairy” rope that disappears down into the depths gives me the willies. I know. It’s totally irrational and shouldn’t change anything, but for some reason it bugs me!

Anyway from that buoy, it’s a stretch back to a buoy closer to shore and then another right turn back past the jetty. Mark and Jo were way ahead, but I was happy with the fact that my swimming, whilst slow, felt comfortable and smooth. Speed isn’t really my forte – I made up my mind 3 years ago to finish each and every swimming event with a smile on my face, rather than throwing up on the shore. I’m not a quick swimmer. I love being in the water, but I’ll never be one of the fast cats.

The second lap went OK too and everything felt OK. I was initially worried that the flu I had recently would have effected me, but apart from a few underwater coughs, all was well.

On the 3rd lap I had what I would describe as a “moment”.

I have these mini-panic attacks from time to time when swimming in open water. I’ve never had to be hauled out or abandon a race because of it, but it’s unnerving when it strikes.

Whenever it happens I just flip on to my back, control my breathing and rather than think “Oh my god, the water’s deep, it’s too cold, I’m getting cramp, it’s too far to shore, I can’t make it” I put a heavy lid on that panic, and remind myself that I’ve done a lot of open water and never failed to get over any problems.

I then look up at the sky and remind myself how grateful I ought to be to be able to swim in the open on such a fine day. Once I’ve brought my mind back to enjoyment and gratitude, it seems to dissipate the fear. Once settled and sorted, I flip back onto my front, swim a little breaststroke to ensure all is well again and finally get my head back in and pick up the front crawl again.

Now, I know that these little panics are nothing more than the result of letting that bit of my brain that allows negative thoughts to take over. Each time I beat it, those bits of my brain get squeezed to be a little bit smaller. Each time I carry on, I kill off a limiting belief.

So in the end I managed 3 (OK – 2 and three quarters. I said this was an honest blog) laps of the buoy marked circuit. I clambered out feeling pretty good, and saw Mark and Jo complete an impressive 5 circuits each. In the meantime Charlie had found a tree and was attempting to break previously unbroken limbs by falling out every so often.

“How was it?” said Mark after he came out.

I told him about my mild moment, but I don’t think he was worried. Perhaps he doesn’t get them too! I’m sure I’ll settle with experience. After sharing a few of Sarah’s homemade brownies and some of Mark’s goodies (we’re allowed, we’d just been swimming), we waved ourselves off. Mark was kind enough to give me one of his copies of H2Open, a new Open Water Magazine. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but on the cover there’s an interview with Kari-Anne Payne (the UK’s silver-medalist open water swimmer from the Beijing Olympics 10K) it says in big letters “If You’re Scared, You’re In The Wrong Sport” on it. Oh dear. Let’s hope not.

Once home and dry I got a kind text message on my mobile from Mark asking if I’d got back OK. I replied Yes, and that next time I go up there I’ll do 5 laps.

My mobile buzzed again “At least 5 laps!” Mark’s text said. Rocky’s trainer has nothing on this man!! His text also said I was welcome anytime, so he can’t have be too disappointed that I’m a slower kind of swimmer. Thanks Mark – it was a great swim, and great to meet you, Charlie and Jo. As you say, next time it’ll be 5 laps.

At least!

About Pete Windridge-France

I'm a Leeds-based 37 yr old, and live with Sarah my other half, and my kids Archie, Jem and Scarlett. Being a fan of swimming and generally doing silly things, I decided to try swim the channel to raise money for Archie's Special Needs School - Penny Field in Leeds. This website shows my progress!
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12 Responses to Ellerton Park: My First Open Water Swim for 12 months!

  1. Marie says:

    …er..so when Mark told you about the ‘things’ he didn’t mention the 4 ft pike? :-)

  2. Pat Maycroft says:

    Hi Pete,
    I enjoyed reading of your experience at Ellerton Lake with Mark and Jo. I knew exactly where you were swimming from buoy to buoy. It is a bit fearful at first but much better the second and third time. I’ve been swimming there fairly regularly with Darlington Tri Club (May to Sept) also the OSS and now Openwater Swim North East England (bit of a long title). I’m a slow swimmer and a grandmother! but I enjoy the fresh air and the challenges of the cold and windy conditions (sometimes too windy) at Ellerton. It gets really warm mid summer and much more pleasurable. So far, I’ve only swam round 3 times no more but I have swam right to the far shore and back after doing two laps round the buoys. Later the weed grows up and cuts the surface and I find that a bit scary. I don’t like weed wrapped round my ankles! I had a shock when I saw a huge bubble like thing and though it was a massive jellyfish. It turned out to be an air bubble from one of the divers, phew!

    Good luck with all your future swims, its a great way to keep fit!



  3. Pete Windridge-France says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Pat! I think the more or this I do , the happier I get. I’m not too bothered about weeds, as I used to swim in Coniston a lot, and it specialises in weeds during the summer!!
    Talk about windy – I went to my first Dover Training session last weekend. Now that was windy! I’m hoping to get back to Ellerton soon – hopefully this week.

  4. Chris Price says:

    Hi Pete, enjoyed this piece, it’s made interesting reading and I’ve picked up a few tips!!I have my first triathlon in June (5th) and have yet to wear my wetsuit!! I swam in the Med in Mallorca last month, it was freezing!
    I will be at Ellerton next week to hopefully get a few OW swims in before the tri, if the pike doesn’t get me!
    Best of luck with your goals.

    • Pete Windridge-France says:

      Thanks Chris! It’s funny how quickly your brain gets used to doing what it’s told. I took ages to get into cold water a few weeks back, but now I can walk in straightaway – however I still have a wait a minute or so before ducking my head right under – that ALWAYS takes my breath away!
      I hope to get up to Ellerton or Gaddings Dam in the next 10 days before doing Dover again in June. Take care and hope to bump into you at some point!

  5. Jez says:

    Enjoyed reading your blog – I have just started open water swimming this season ahead of the Epic event swim series in the Lakes and so far have had two dips in Ellerton. It seems a great spot to build confidence and experience. One thing I have not been able to fathom (!) is how far it is for a lap round the white buoys – do you happen to know?

    • Pete Windridge-France says:

      I don’t Know Jez, but I know a man who does. Mark Robson is a North-East open swimmer of some repute, an Ellerton expert, not to mention a very helpful fella with a very informative blog (he keeps his more up to date than mine!!).
      You can find him at http://swimmingthechannel2008.blogspot.com/ and if you leave a comment on his latest post he’s bound to give you a swift reply!

  6. Andy Morrison says:


    I know what you mean about the stuff on the bottom of Ellerton – I’m kind of OK with it, but know people who spend most of thier time with thier eyes closed ! Think myself and a mate spoke to you as you got out of the water at Ellerton last week ( Thursday) , and its an awesome achievement your undertaking, I’m doing the great North and its going well, but I simply cannot imagine the Chanel – respect and good luck !
    Keep on with the blog – It makes interesting reading

    • Pete Windridge-France says:

      Thanks Andy! I know, I’m slipping a bit with my blog posts. I’ve been down to Dover three times and haven’t written one of them up yet. Swimming in Dover Harbour doesn’t bother me as much because I can’t see a damn thing!! Hope to see you at Ellerton sometime – I’m planning to go up this Sunday.

      • Andy Morrison says:

        I,ve got a week until the Great North, so was going to leave this weekend off, and swim during the week, but my training buddy ( and me ) are enjoying Ellerton so much I think were going to do Sunday aswell, so maybe see you . Dover sounded quite a challenge !

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