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Andy Parsons

Take the plunge: meet the swimmers of London

Written by
Sonya Barber

From diehard lido fans to really wild swimmers, Sonya Barber meets six Londoners who love to make a splash

Every morning I immerse myself in the cool refreshing water of London Fields Lido for 30 minutes of granny breaststroke. Apart from the occasional annoying splasher, it is a soothing, meditative retreat – a necessary antidote to the stress, noise and pressure of city life, and a break from staring mindlessly at my phone. It’s amazing how much a few gentle lengths can dramatically improve my mood and make me feel like a functioning human being again. It’s a solo, simple, primitive pleasure.

I’m not the only one who appreciates the joy of taking a dip in the city. Swimming memberships in London are on the up (leisure centre chain Better reports a 15 percent increase in the past year) while there are plans to open new swimming spots in Peckham Rye Common, the River Thames and the lake in Beckenham Place Park. And you only need a sunny day to see hundreds of people patiently queuing outside lidos, pools and ponds across the city.

Whether it’s for exercise, escapism or just cooling off, swimming is a treasured pastime for many Londoners. Here, some swimming enthusiasts share their stories about why they love taking the plunge. 

Mike Kahn, 65 (pictured above)

‘I discovered Parliament Hill Lido totally by chance. I used to change trains at Gospel Oak every day but had no idea what was just behind the trees. One evening, my train was cancelled, so I went for a walk and there it was. I went back the next morning and now, 16 years later, I’ve hardly been away. It has completely changed my life.

‘I swim every day, all year round, but I particularly love the winter – the sheer adrenaline rush of cold water and the warming up after. I wear neoprene boots and gloves so I can stay in longer. I come from a scientific background so I judge how long to swim by the temperature. If it’s three degrees, I’m in for 12 minutes; if it’s four, I’ll go in for 17 minutes, and so it goes up. I’ve even swum when it’s been zero degrees. You have to be careful, though. I had a bad experience where I didn’t realise I’d stayed in too long. I thought a heavy fog had descended, but I had started to lose my vision, which is the onset of hypothermia. Your body will tell you when to get out.

‘Swimming does wonders for me and I find it hugely beneficial for my mental health. When you leave the lido, you’re on a high. It’s very sociable too; we have a wonderful community and we all look out for each other.

‘I used to live ten minutes away, but I’ve moved so now I travel an hour each way to swim at Parliament Hill Lido. I never miss a swim, though. It’s important to have something to look forward to every day.’

Taynika, 38

‘I’ve always found water therapeutic. I swam all the way through my pregnancy until my son’s birth. As he got heavier it felt amazing to feel weightless. It was a very quick labour and they told me they didn’t have time to fill up the pool for my water birth. I thought: I must have him in the water! And I’m so glad I did. We started him swimming early to nurture the natural instinct babies have to swim.

‘He was only eight weeks old when we first took him and he’d often almost fall asleep. Now, at nearly nine months, he’s really comfortable in the water. Babies are in water [in the womb] for a long time, so there must be a level of it that’s familiar to him. He’s not scared at all. He forgets he can’t actually swim and moves freely in the water; he splashes about, opens his eyes and drinks the pool water. During the hot weather, we’ve been down every day and I can see the ecstasy on his face as he cools down. That makes me really happy.

‘He doesn’t have to be an Olympic swimmer. I see it as a life skill, just like learning to ride a bike. You might not need to use it every day, but it’s important to know how to do it.’

Roberta Francis, 51 

‘I started Tags – London’s first transgender and gender non-conforming swimming group – in 2014 because there was nowhere for me to swim. There aren’t really any safe spaces for trans people where they don’t feel like their bodies are being scrutinised. It’s lovely to have a space where we can relax, talk and have a laugh.

‘We meet in Lewisham every Friday and Swiss Cottage every other week. There’s no membership, people just turn up. Having a space where trans people can be themselves is what makes it so special. You have freedom inside a swimming pool that you can’t get elsewhere; your body is totally free. It’s such a simple thing that people who aren’t trans take for granted.

‘Swimmers who come are overjoyed – many of them haven’t swum for years because of their trans journey. A lot of people say their mental health has improved too. We had someone from Dublin who hadn’t swum in 20 years, and now they want to start a space in Dublin. The ripple effect is amazing – we hope it continues to grow.’ Roberta is the founder of Tags.

Oliver Pitt, 44

‘The thing about swimming in wild water is that there’s no sign saying “You can swim here”. That’s why we created this community – which now has 30,000 members – to show them places to go and equip them with the skills to do it safely. It’s such a simple pastime: you just need a swimsuit and goggles, and you can jump in.

‘You can get lost in the stillness of the stroke; it’s an almost Zen-like meditation as you interact with your body and see the water gliding past you. Escaping into the cocoons of Hampstead Ponds and the Serpentine feels like a special privilege. There are ducks and swans just five feet away from you because they don’t feel threatened; you’re no longer a human form, just a head.

‘The experience alters throughout the year: as the seasons change, so does the water. The trick to getting into cold water is to just relax and keep breathing – if you do feel panicked, float on your back. I swim all year round, so I’m used to it.’ Oliver is head of social media for The Outdoor Swimming Society.

Mary Cane, 72

‘I have been swimming regularly at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond since the early 1980s when a friend took me. There are no signs to it so if you don’t know it exists, you’re unlikely to find it. You go through the pond gate, you’re in dappled shade and it’s just exquisite. It’s breathtakingly beautiful all year round and you get a real sense of the seasons passing.

‘Until I broke my hip, I was swimming twice a day, or three times when it was hotter. In the colder months, you have to treat it as a different thing. It’s more of a meditative process than exercise. Getting into cold water really is good for you. I swear by it and say it helps resist colds.

‘Being in a female-only space is wonderful too. There’s so much creativity and laughter. You learn more in the Ladies’ Pond changing rooms than anywhere else in the world. It’s full of people with lots of experience, advice and knowledge. It really is magic. It’s so nice to go with a friend and swim and talk. You talk through your lives, troubles and adventures. It’s like swimming therapy.

‘My favourite thing is when you see a kingfisher sitting on a branch or diving in for a fish. It’s one of the best spectacles. My dying wish would be that every town create a pond in their biggest park and open them up so everyone could swim. Fresh water, fresh air and good company. What more could you wish for?’

Peigh Asante, 32

‘I got into swimming quite late in life. I used to run with Run Dem Crew but I got injured and my physio recommended I start swimming. I didn’t know how to, but I went to my local pool and taught myself. The first couple of months I was swimming wrong. A lifeguard said to me “What are you doing, mate?” I said “I’m swimming!” “Nah you’re not,” he said. “You need to get your head under!” So I had to start all over again.

‘I saw Emily and [Swim Dem Crew co-founder] Nathaniel swimming one day in London Fields Lido and I was like: These people are like me! We started swimming together and I would tweet about it with the hashtag #swimdemcrew. People started joining us and it grew so much that we decided to make it into a proper thing.

‘Fast-forward five years, and we have lots of spin-off crews and a revolving door of 30-50 people who swim with us every week. When I entered the swimming world, I noticed that there weren’t many people like me. People think “swimming isn’t for black people”, but that’s just wrong. That’s why it’s important for us to be as visible as possible so that people of different classes and races can see themselves represented in the water and realise they can do it too. We’re all about community and empowering people – all barriers are removed when you’re half-naked!’  Peigh is co-founder of Swim Dem Crew.

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