Forward: Don’t read this unless you want to find out the best private members clubs to swim in London, what it’s like to share a mixed sex changing room at the Serpentine Swimming Club or why open water swimming is so wonderful…it’s not a short post, perhaps put the kettle on, forearmed is forewarned!
So…there is swimming in public pools with chlorine, verucca plasters floating past your face, pubic hairs in communal showers, draughty and cold changing rooms and hair dryers that don’t have enough puff to blow out a candle.
And then there is swimming in pools housed in the exclusive enclaves of London’s private members clubs. In my experience the best private pool in London for actually enjoying a long and therefore decent swim is the RAC Club on Pall Mall. Built in 1911 on the site of the old War Office, hidden four storeys below the pavements above, with Grecian columns, lofty ceilings, a marble clad surround and Turkish baths, it’s surely the forefather of the bourgeoise basement extensions belonging to its modern day neighbours in the mansions of Kensington and Mayfair.
It can be a bit stuffy though and any club that has a men’s bar, ladies’ lounge (oh come on, join the 21st century please) and very strict dress code (jacket and tie, no denim) is never going to be top of my hit list. I also find their iron-clad dress code slightly ironic as, back in the very earliest of days when it was a gentleman’s only club, my father tells me that the men used to swim naked. The mind boggles, clearly it was ok to be bare below the stairs, but fully suited and booted above. Oh if those Grecian columns could talk…
The coolest pool in London I have swum in is the stainless steel rooftop pool of Shoreditch House. There isn’t a dress code there, except that ties specifically are not allowed, but if you’re a bloke and don’t sport a beard, skinny jeans and the latest stan smiths then you might feel a tad out of place.
Personally I like swimming in the ‘Ditch best in the winter evenings – the skyline of London twinkles around you, the air outside is cold, the pool is consistently maintained at a pleasantly warm 26 degrees, almost always empty, and the showers and cocktails are heavenly (if in doubt, go for an Eastern Standard).
The only downside is that even though it’s twice the size of the postage stamp pool at Soho House New York – which I tried to swim in once and gave up after it took only to two strokes to go from one end to the other – it’s really not long enough to have a truly decent swim.
Poncy private club pools aside – there is then the grand-daddy of them all – Open Water Swimming. The modern day version of open water swimming is said to hark back to May, 1810 when Lord Byron swam across the Hellespont, (or Dardanelles) from Europe to Asia.
Born with a club foot, it is said that Byron found a freedom in the water that he could not experience on land. Doing breast-stroke, he swam the Hellespont in an impressive hour and ten minutes – it’s now the busiest (and one of the most polluted) shipping lanes in the world, ergo it’s sadly lost its poetically romantic appeal to me.
From a health point of view, open water is claimed to be the best type of swimming for you, it boosts your immune system, gives you an endorphin high, increases your libido, reduces stress and improves your circulation.
From my point of view, swimming in open water turns the activity from a somewhat dull and tedious exercise into a mellifluously meditative and memorable experience, with each swim as unique as the weather, flora, fauna, sea-life and water patterns permit.
Yes, it can take your breathe away when you first get in, but if you exhale slowly and lower yourself gently and gradually into the water, then it soon goes. Remember, everything is temporary, and all things shall pass.
Once I’ve set off, an almost somnambular sensation sets in as I slide, glide, pull and gently weave my way through the water. As soon as I’ve dropped into the rhythmic breath required for a steady stroke (which must be no different to yogic or mindfulness breathing exercises), combined with the feeling of weightlessness, my consciousness expands, and either ideas float out of no-where or my brain empties of all thoughts apart from an awareness of what is above, beneath and around me.
Swimming is my meditation, my breath is my mantra, and many a problem has been solved as I’ve slipped through the water in silence.
Pre-eternity leave (PE) and back in the day when I had a proper job, I used to swim in the Serpentine two or three times a week. Wetsuits were frowned upon, so I wouldn’t go if the water was colder than a bone chilling and hypothermia inducing 8 degrees celsius. This meant I was mainly confined to the months of March to late October, or the occasional balmy day in November.
There’s something very unique and special about swimming in the Serpentine – it’s the oldest swimming club in Great Britain, you’re surrounded by the peace and tranquility of Hyde Park in the centre of the loud and bustling metropolis that is London, and what’s more, you swim amongst the fish, ducks and swans (and rats too, I suppose, although I never saw one, so took the approach of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ ). Imagine looking up to take a breath of air and seeing a swam majestically take flight alongside you – it really is breath-taking.
My favourite time of year to swim there is spring: the daffodils, snowdrops and crocuses are out, the birds are chirping and tweeting in the trees and importantly, it’s also before it’s warm enough for the algae to grow; the water is clear, you can see the pike swimming below you and you don’t get an itchy rash from the grim, green slime that somehow manages to work its way into every crease and crevasse as well as sticking to your swimsuit during the summer months.
It’s not just the cold water and itchy algae that one has to come to terms with at the Serpentine Swimming Club though, it’s also the challenge of the Changing Room. NB: that’s not a typo, the noun ‘room’ really is singular and not plural and size wise it’s about 10 feet wide by 15 feet long – with no shower or cubicles of any kind. There are just pegs to pop your clothes on and a kettle in the corner for a restorative and much needed post-swim cup of tea.
You might think that swimming in eight degrees cool water is a pretty intimidating thought, but imagine walking into a room at 6.30am to be faced with the reality of having to take your clothes off in front of ten to fifteen semi naked men. It’s certainly not for the prudish or faint of heart, unless, of course, you’re a nudist in which case you’d be right at home.
There tend to be two types of changers in the clubhouse, those who hide demurely behind huge towels, turning their backs to the room and doing everything possible to keep accidental intimate flashes to a minimum and then there are the posh old boys I nicknamed the “Free Willys” (always the men, never the women), who put one leg up on the bench to towel off their nether-regions and all the while chortling loudly ‘wouldn’t it be easier if we just all went in naked’.
I suppose you’ve got to admire their confidence, as no man’s manhood looks particularly impressive after a twenty minute dunking in icy water. My technique was huge towel, eyes down at all times, easy pull on/off clothes, and get the hell out of there as fast as possible.
The Serpentine Lido is open from May to September, do put it on your bucket list, you won’t be disappointed (and, unlike the clubhouse, the Lido has hot showers and single sex changing rooms).
Other open water swimming experiences I’ve loved have been: from the beaches of the Isle of Wight, that little upside down triangle of magic I call home; in the stunning fjords, caves and grottos of Montenegro; a 7am swim in the remarkably icy June waters of Martha’s Vineyard (home to Jaws, the movie); and from the beautiful beaches and in the tidal pools surrounding Sydney – sharks and jellyfish aside – probably my favourite place in the world to swim so far.
It will come as no surprise for you to read that I am sea swimming regularly here in Tarifa. The water is currently a cool and pleasant 16 degrees and curiously, although I have yet to find a local who can explain why, the Mediterranean side of the harbour is cooler than the Atlantic side.
The sea is crystal clear, I see shoals of fish, both big and small along with the occasional crustacean scuttling back to safety in the nooks and crannies of the rocks that line the harbour walkway.
The walkway wall provides much needed shelter from the prevailing winds and the current there is a mere gentle tug as opposed to any dangerous rip – getting sucked out to sea here would not be good idea as the next landfall west is North Carolina and you’re bang slap in the middle of the migratory path of great white sharks, killer whales and orcas.
The lovely thing here of course is that post swim, I can soak in the sun on the beach to warm up (16 degrees still means you emerge with goosebumps) – the case of a dose of vitamin sea ensuring I get my vitamin D.
The golden sand is warm, and lovely and soft to lie on, and midweek I’m often on the beach on my own. I bask in this post swim solitude, as I slowly drift back into the real world from my swimming-semi-conscious-state.
Once I feel the warmth of the sun on my bones, I have a big stretch, gather my senses along with my clothes and head back for a cup of tea and a cuddle with Tiggy.
This week I swam on both Tuesday and Thursday at noon. As I warmed up on the beach afterwards my mind wandered to what I would have been doing if I was back at home working now. Oh how easy it would have been to tread the well trodden path, find another job and continue on the treadmill of career ascension.
I reminded myself that there’s a reason only dead fish go with the flow, it’s the same reason birds take off against and not into the wind – it gives you greater control to steer to your destination, or perhaps even your destiny.
Why then, do so many of us spend so much of our lives always going with the flow? Of course, there’s always a time and a place for everything and running with the tide can oft provide much needed respite, life certainly needs to be more than just one long battle.
For now, I’ve decided it’s best not to argue with mother nature, and I’m winning as I swim with the fishes against the flow. My unexpected redundancy has taught me that sometimes you need to be bold and strong, to strike out on your own, take a deep breath and swim into unchartered waters. And I have never before felt with more certainty that I’m doing exactly the right thing.
Love, Sophie, Tiggy and The Beast X
p.s Paws for Thought
Tiggy has had her first swim – it was completely accidental – but all four paws definitely left the sand! Until now she’s always been utterly petrified of water, so even little Tiggy is making great strides and learning new things on her gap year, but she’s says to tell you that she’s fed up of naughty local dogs pinching her bouncy balls on the beach.