Eurostar Metropolitan magazine, February 2010
It is quiet in Hyde Park, and still somewhat dark. The surface of the Serpentine, reflecting a ferris wheel underneath the glowing lights of high-rise hotels in the distance, is frozen solid. It’s an arresting, eerily beautiful scene. But what most concerns the people gathering at the water’s edge is that it’s getting in the way of their customary Saturday morning dip. The Serpentine Swimming Club members meet here every morning of the year. And if, like today, there is two-inch-thick ice, they just smash a hole and get on with it.
It’s not a pursuit that would appeal to most people, but the smiles on the faces suggest that something close to euphoria can be achieved by overcoming the natural urge to stay warm in order to immerse oneself in near-freezing water.There’s a strong bond between the swimmers, some of whom have been club members for 60 years. Rosemary George has been swimming in the Serpentine since 1967.
“You have a nice day after you’ve been in,” she says. “The camaraderie is lovely. You meet people, you have a laugh,you have your swim and you feel good.”
Rosemary is the first European woman to have swum the Channel in both directions and she oversees the club’s weekly races. There’s a healthy spirit of competition at the Serpentine (many swimmers have chalked up some hugely impressive distances) but the main thing about the club is the sense of community. People might join through curiosity as much as anything, but it rapidly becomes a habit.
Yoko Reid was introduced to the Serpentine in 1996 by Rosemary. “It’s a surprise every time I get in,” she says. She relishes the freedom of swimming in the lake: “I don’t have to kick the walls every 25 metres!” Another member, Piera Costantini Scala, began swimming in the summer three years ago. She never intended to keep going throughout the winter – but found herself returning even as the water turned icy. “The beauty of the park, and being close to nature, really puts you in a good mood,” she explains.
There’s an equally powerful sense of joie de vivre at Tooting Bec Lido on Sunday mornings, where the South London Swimming Club (SLSC) meets for its weekly races across the width of the unheated pool. At 90 metres long, Tooting Bec is the second-largest fresh water swimming pool in Europe, and its vast blue expanse is a striking sight.
“It’s a different world,” says SLSC member Tom Butler. “It’s so separate from the rest of London.” After a swim, members can use the sauna (a gift from the king of Finland) before gathering for hot drinks and homemade cakes
in the café. What’s noticeable is the diverse range of professions and backgrounds. “It doesn’t matter who you are,” says Egg Sullivan, a furniture designer. “It’s like a church.” He and his wife Margy live nearby and say they wouldn’t move away. “It clears your head for the day.”
The SLSC’s oldest swimmer is 87-year-old Cyril Wood, whose wife Yvonne first brought him to Tooting Bec in 1935. Seventy-five years later, the couple are a Sunday morning fixture at the lido, and have also been swimming at the Serpentine for the past 20 years. Cyril may not be as fast as when he won Tooting Bec races in the 1950s, but his competitive streak came to the fore in a recent half-mile contest, when found himself up against a seven-year-old in the final stages. “I pipped him at the end!” he recalls happily. He and Yvonne still compete in the biennial UK cold water swimming championships, held at the lido. They lay claim to being the world cold water gold medallists in the over-80s category.
For Yvonne, it’s the invigorating effect of cold water that appeals. Margy Sullivan, the organiser of the championships, agrees. Cold water swimming is thought to boost circulation and the immune system – anecdotally, many swimmers do report fewer colds. But for Margy the greatest draw is the natural high that comes from the rush of endorphins on entering the water. “It sure makes you feel good!” she laughs.
The health benefits of outdoor swimming are not in doubt to Geoff Goss, an engineering lecturer who began swimming at the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath when he had a bad back. Geoff began swimming here every day six years ago. “I’ve never had back problems since,” he says.
There are three swimming ponds on the Heath. Breathing in the clean air, it’s hard to believe that these are just minutes from the crowds of central London. Steve O’Connor has been a lifeguard at the men’s pond for 13 years and says that even in winter, up to 70 people a day visit. “Once they’re hooked, that’s it,” he says. He’d come and swim here evenif wasn’t his job. “I get a real kick out of it,” he confirms. Viv Fongenie, a film director in his first season of winter swimming, agrees. “Zinging” is the word he uses to describe how the water “wakes you up in a really profound way”.
So I decide I have to try it for myself at the Hampstead pond. I plunge in, gasping, suppressing the urge to cry out.
The water is so cold that you can hardly tell it is cold, but the sheer exhilaration is hard to deny. It transports you to a different place; your thoughts are purged, your mind squeezed of unnecessary clutter and pared down to the elemental.
For the rest of the day I experience a mood of uncharacteristic focus and serenity. Now I understand why these swimmers have been so keen to share their passion – and it’s the only way you can understand it.
The exhilaration is a part of it, but the real value lies deeper than this. It’s a way of recapturing nature, freedom,community, fun, a sense of space and perspective – everything that city life has a way of pushing to the background.
Whether lawyer, taxi driver, artist, doctor, dustbin collector, teacher or MP, swimming under forbidding grey clouds or in the dazzling December sunshine, one thing is certain: as they walk away from the water to rejoin the rest of the city, London’s winter swimmers have a definite spring in their step.