MORE than 5,000 swimmers braved Britain’s largest lake to take part in the Great North Swim at the Low Wood Hotel.

Ages and abilities ranged from first-timers to Keri-Anne Payne, who will fly the flag for Britain in this summer's London 2012 Games.

Payne finished fifth in the elite women's race, which was won by the Czech Republic’s Jana Pechanova in a time of 18 minutes 38 seconds. Fellow Briton Lucy Charles finished second, with German Isabelle Haerle, who helped young children improve their technique in a masterclass at Kendal Leisure Centre last week, claiming third prize.

“Just look at this beautiful scenery - it has been absolutely incredible to take part and it’s been a great day,” said Payne.

Those sentiments were echoed by Olympic gold medallist Duncan Goodhew, who gave special acclimitisation tips for swimmers, and legendary athlete-turned-commentator Brendan Foster.

“This has to be the finest sporting venue in the world and it’s a great day for Cumbria,” said Foster, who was present with organisers Nova.

“The atmosphere all day has been sensational.”

Winner of the men’s event was France’s Sebastien Roualt in 17 minutes, with Alex Studzinski from Germany second and South African Chad Ho third.

But the day was not just about the creme de la creme - more than 5,000 swimmers braved the chilly Windermere waters to test their mettle.

Jane Harrison, the Kirkby Lonsdale 60-year-old who finished swimming 50 miles of the River Lune only last Thursday at Sunderland Point, was eager to get into the water.

“I’m totally addicted to swimming now! I was holding my breath about today after Friday and Saturday were cancelled thinking ‘Please don’t call it off!’ “This has just been an amazing day.”

Competitors and their families travelled from all over the country to take part.

Matt Hallsey, 40, from London, said after his mile in the water: “It was actually quite pleasant in a strange, sadistic way!”

There were 11 ‘waves’ of one-mile swimmers who took to the calm-looking lake after the half-mile event was won by 14-year-old Sam Thompson earlier in the morning.

“It’s nice to be the first person of the day to cross the line,” said the Northampton lad.

“The conditions were a lot better than I thought considering it was cancelled yesterday and Friday.”

The water level was higher than normal for this time of year, with jetties submerged under the high tides, but swimmers seemed to cope well under the conditions.

Helen Skelton, presenting a 90-minute programme on the Great North Swim for BBC2 was thrilled to see the crowds.

The Blue Peter presenter said: “It’s been absolutely non-stop for me today with the BBC!

“It has been a fantastic day and I’m amazed and proud to see so many Cumbrians turning out.”

The Great North Swim had to be cancelled on Friday and Saturday because of winds exceeding 30 miles per hour.