The historic lidos of London are well-loved, especially during the summer when sweaty locals descend in their droves to cool off and soak up the sun with a lolly or two. Come September however, when the majority of the population has forgotten these pools exist, a stalwart band of winter swimming enthusiasts soldier on, plunging into increasingly icy waters.
But why? What is it with Londoners and our crazy hobbies? I visited a handful of the most famous outdoor swimming locations to try it out for myself.
Brockwell Lido © Steve Cadman
That's how I found myself poolside in November at the Brockwell Lido (it's only £3 for a winter swim), which first opened in 1937 accompanied by a now-grade II listed art deco style pavilion. The first thing I felt was rookie embarrassment. I was the only one in a wetsuit; the pool was filled with slightly pink-looking bodies, happily zipping up and down the lanes seemingly without an ounce of concern for the chilly water. The receptionist on the way in had told me it was 12 degrees, so bracing myself I prepared for entry, thinking 'how bad can it be?'
It was like having a thousand little knives pierce my skin at the same time.
The breath was completely knocked out of me and I only managed a few strokes before spluttering to the surface goggles askew. I limped back to the side and seriously considered giving up. However I was determined not to stop until I had at least 'warmed up' and within a couple lengths I felt much more comfortable, mostly because everywhere that wasn't covered by the wetsuit had gone numb.
Elated after a hot shower I got chatting to some of my fellow swimmers; a friendly group of local women many of who swim there every day all year round. They enthusiastically explained that the buzz is amazing, and it can actually be worse with a wetsuit because your body learns to grow a second skin.
King's Cross Pond Club
Located in one of London's most rapidly changing areas, the King's Cross Pond Club is the UK's first man-made freshwater public bathing pond within a working construction site. The 40m-long chemical-free pond is the creation of Ooze Architects and artist Marjetica Potrc, and is intended as a space where members of the public can chill out whilst contemplating the differences between the rural and built environment.
On the day I went it was also bloody freezing. Whilst most people were wrapping up against the first really cold day of winter I was plunging myself into 7.5 degrees of green water in the middle of a building site. It's amazing how the body adapts to help you cope. I experienced swollen red limbs, all over body tremors and a strange sensation like I was cocooned in jelly. I found regulating my breathing the biggest challenge but by powering through the pain I eventually found a rhythm and looking up at the sun streaked buildings set against a clear blue sky I even managed to vaguely appreciate the beauty of my surroundings.
At a neat £3.50 the entry fee reflected once again that swimming is one of the cheapest hobbies around but be warned, there are no warm showers here and nowhere indoors to change.
Hampstead Heath Mixed Bathing Ponds
"It's a total addiction," said Geoff Goss, chairman of the Highgate Mens' Pond Association who has been swimming daily at the pond for 10 years. Sitting in a cosy café on the heath I joined some of the club for a post-swim breakfast. We had been for a brief but exhilarating dip in the mixed pond and I couldn't help agreeing with another swimmer when he said "you've never felt more alive". An absolutely beautiful location, swimming is £2 for the public and by joining one of the clubs (Mens, Ladies or Mixed) you can gain exclusive access to the ponds when they close to others over the winter. Parliament Hill Lido is also more sanitised option for those not so into 'nature'.
Hampstead Heath ponds are currently going through a dam and de-silting project which has caused major upheaval for the swimming community, many of whom were opposed to the work. As Geoff took me through all the intricacies of the internal politics of the various clubs and associations who use the pond I realised just how much this hobby means to people and how fiercely they wish to protect the site for the future.
Tooting Bec Lido
London's first outdoor pool Tooting Bec Lido was opened in 1906 after being built by 400 unemployed men. Initially its enormous size (90m) catered for a rapidly increasingly local population when few people had their own bathrooms.
On my last outing I once again found myself in the heart of a close-knit community watching the South London Swimming club's weekly race at the pool. I swam a few relaxing laps (I am such a pro now) followed by a luxurious sauna. To swim in winter at Tooting Bec you have to join the club which costs £120 a year, but unlike many pricier gym memberships this comes with a ready-made bunch of new friends of all ages and an abundance of free homemade cake. Tooting Bec and Brockwell Lido are both taking part in the Crisis Mid-Winter Swim which is a perfect opportunity to try it out. For a gentler experience I also enjoyed a trip to Oasis Lido in Covent Garden. Central London's only outdoor heated pool it is very popular with pre-work swimmers, so get there early to avoid lane rage.