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In the water: Jo Whiley

(9 minute read)

Just back from introducing Sir Paul McCartney’s headline set at Glastonbury, BBC Radio 2 DJ and presenter Jo Whiley headed to Another Place with her family. But far from relaxing, they squeezed in every adventure imaginable – from leaping off a waterfall to 10-person paddleboard fights, a cross-lake challenge to a moonlit birthday swim. Limbs still aching but basking in “that warm glow of achievement”, we caught up with Jo while she was still catching up on her sleep…

Jo Whiley

I first heard about Another Place and Ullswater when I was doing the Sport Relief Triathlon, because 
Colin Hill was my swimming instructor. He saw me through swimming in Wales, Manchester (we swam in Salford Quays) and Glasgow. So I got to know him then, and he told me all about Ullswater and how he lived there, and swam across the lake to work. 

When I first discovered swimming in fresh water instead of salt water, it was quite transformative. I normally swim in swimming pools, and when I think about doing an active holiday or a swimming holiday, I always go to Cornwall. But swimming in the lake without the currents, salt and waves, now appeals more. 

Colin took us through the Aira Force waterfall, which is so exhilarating. It’s absolutely freezing, but plunging in from a height is such a buzz – especially introducing that to the whole family and our friends who came with us.

I love jumping in water. There’s just something brilliant about scaring yourself. It doesn’t matter what your ability is… Colin will always take care of you; having him there makes you feel safe. And everyone looks after each other and challenges each other to push themselves. If you’re scared, everyone will be rooting for you – and you can just go to a lower level and jump from there. It really is for everybody. We took kids with us who were really scared, so there was lots of encouragement and then holding hands and jumping in together… And then this huge celebration and feeling of euphoria. It’s so satisfying looking up at the height and thinking, ‘I managed to do that.’ 

Jo jumping into water

I decided I wanted to come back from our trip with a sense of achievement, so I asked Colin if he would take us on the cross-lake swim (not the length of Ullswater, but the width). He does it on his daily commute, but for us it’s a really big deal – even though I’m a really confident swimmer. When you’re faced with looking across to the other side of the lake, and thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to go right across there and then I’ve got to come back again’, I felt a bit panic-stricken. And putting my face in the water was quite daunting, because it’s very black. But everyone was so supportive; they’re with you and you can take time and tread water, rest with your float, and people talk to you and ask whether you’re ready to keep on going. I just thought, ‘Yeah OK, I can do this,’ and little by little managed quite a big distance in the end. 

We managed to swim there and back again with Colin, and my mum and my father-in-law in a boat alongside us. There were six of us who did it – my husband and daughter, and her boyfriend and two friends as well. Even now I’ve still got that warm glow of achievement – and the medal that Colin gave us at the end. I’m so glad I did it. It was a mile in total, which doesn’t sound much, but something I’d never done before – swimming that distance in open water. It’s given me the appetite to do it again, and maybe even a bit further!

The full moon swims are the most magical experience you can have with a group of friends and family. It was unbelievable. You see the moon’s reflection on the lake, and we swam into the moonlight. Colin is very good at making you stop, look up at the stars, reflect on where you are, soak it all in and appreciate the moment. That was very important, because we’d been so active moving from one experience to the next – but he really makes you slow down and appreciate it all; the nature and beauty of everything around you and what you’re doing. We swam to a buoy and then looked up at the moon and the sky and the hills all around us and took it all in. My mum was watching from the jetty, taking photographs. We didn’t hear any owls or night wildlife though – we were too busy singing Happy Birthday to my husband, right out there in the middle of the lake!

Having my whole family around doing stuff like that was really, really special. My son has never done this kind of thing before. He’s 21 but was a little bit apprehensive. So I was looking out for him and was so proud of him – really moved that he was out there with us. And before we were going for the swim, my daughter – who’s only 13 – was just saying, ‘No! There’s no way I’m going swimming in that lake at night.’ But of course, when it came to it, she was not going to be left out – so she swam with us as well and she absolutely loved it. 

It’s really important that people know that there’s nothing to be scared of. Safety is always paramount; you’ll be looked after every step of the way. And you’ll feel the most brilliant sense of achievement when you get out of the water. You don’t have to swim right across the lake to have that great feeling – just getting in the water, even in the shallows, and experiencing what it’s like is amazing too. It’s worth scaring yourself for the reward of the satisfaction at the end of it. I cannot recommend it enough. 

We were buzzing when we got out, it’s the best feeling in the world! You get a massive adrenaline surge and then you’re just basking in this amazing afterglow of happiness and achievement. There might be things in the water, there are fish… but you never think about it because you’re too busy having fun and laughing. I’ve sent so many messages to friends saying, ‘You have to experience this. You have to try it! You will love it!’

Jo Whiley night swimming

The hike to Angle Tarn was fantastic as well. We’ve never walked as a family, but we all did it. It was quite challenging, but not too challenging – enough to make you feel you’d achieved something. To get to the top and discover this massive body of water high up in the hills, and then get in it and swim across to these little islands – it’s the stuff of fairy tales, adventures… Swallows and Amazons. But you’re actually living it.

Staying in the Treehouse was mindblowing. I don’t think we’ve stayed anywhere so opulent before. I loved the design of it, and how it’s tucked away – you’ve got these huge glass windows and they just look out onto trees, and you feel like you’re in the heart of the forest… but then with this amazing view of the lake. 

Every single member of the family at one point ran a bath and soaked out on the decking. It’s such a lovely touch. Sitting out there in a copper bath with a glass of something in hand, and looking at the lake with the trees around you – it doesn’t get much better than that.

I’m really into gardening, and was very impressed by the relandscaped gardens too. Everything’s tucked away and positioned in and angled in just the right way, and the planting is very clever. It’s quite dramatic; very stylish – some very black, dark trees, a lot of beech – lovely purple copper beech – and then grasses everywhere. It felt like being at Chelsea Flower Show or Hampton Court. It’s spot on.

We had a pizza party in the new Glasshouse with the whole family. It was lovely; there were lots of fire pits and the evening sunlight was really hazy, and the smell of the fire pits and the food cooking… It’s a magical spot. I love how the glass means you can still appreciate the landscape around you even when you’re inside.

I’ve never been so tired coming back from a holiday, as I am this week – but I have an amazing sense of fulfilment as well.
 I’m still catching up on my sleep now. You feel tired, but the best kind of tiredness; that wonderful heavy, physical tiredness that you get sometimes when you’re consumed by exhaustion, but it’s a really great exhaustion. I’m aching everywhere… Trying to lift up my arms, my shoulders are so sore, still, but it’s 100% worth it. We experienced so much.


Listen to Jo’s radio show every weeknight on BBC Radio 2.

She’s also an ambassador for the Royal Horticultural Society.

Her ‘Jo Whiley’s 90s Anthems’ is currently on tour – more info on Instagram @90santhems

Explore cross-lake, full moon and other open water swim experiences at Another Place.