From my tropical perch, I used to shake my head in disbelief when scanning through the pictures and posts UK swimmers contributed to the popular (among swimmers) Facebook group "Did You Swim Today?" How could people be smiling while swimming in "skins" in water that regularly dipped well below 16 C (about 60 F) posts would continue all throughout the winter, and I'd marvel at folks who replaced wooly hats and scarves with swim caps and bathing suits to wade into the icy waters all throughout the UK. Beyond the novelty of it, I wondered what kept these swimmers returning to the water when curling up in front of the fire with a pot of tea seemed much more appealing?
I moved to Honolulu, Hawaii about 8 years ago. I easily and quickly grew accustomed to swimming in water that regularly reaches temperatures that warm to 30 C in the peak of the summer and cool to about 25 C in the winter months. Laughably, many of my Hawaii friends complain about the "cold water" in February. Some even don light wetsuit tops to keep them warm in the winter. As a Canadian, I'd feel ridiculous wearing a wetsuit in such temperatures, but I have to admit those winter mornings do feel uncomfortably chilly!
This past weekend, I dipped my toe into the joys of swimming in colder temperatures, giving me a better understanding of the appeal of winter swimming (Yes, I know it's not quite winter yet!). Having just finished another great season of guiding for Swim Trek (I spent some weeks in the Greek Sporades, then ended the season in Croatia, on the island of Prvic Luka), I was excited to be included in a "London Lido crawl" organized by my friend Catherine Mack. I first met Catherine when she was a guest on a Swim Trek in Croatia in 2006. I was grateful to be able to end my season with her and a few of her friends and celebrate swimming throughout London. You don't need to live on a tropical island or in the Mediterranean to enjoy the water.
We eased into the day at the London Oasis, a heated outdoor pool in the heart of the city (Holburn or Covent Gardens tube). Though I knew the water was heated (I saw the steam rising from the water as proof), the chilly air made me reluctant to get in. Feeling like a wimp before the day had even started, I curled my hands around my tea telling myself to buck up.
It was remarkable being able to swim outside in October, and the water was a comfortable 25 C. There were a few other people sharing lanes in the pool, but the four of us were able to claim one lane for a 45 minute session. Keeping our eye on the time (we had two more places to visit), we reluctantly got out of the water to prepare for our next swim.
We hopped aboard a city bus and, probably for my benefit, sat on the top floor and watched the busy streets of London whiz by as we headed to Hackney, the location of our second swim at London Fields Lido. Here, we were treated to a 50 m heated pool and a deck lined by colourful changing rooms reminiscent of a beachfront. The sky was beginning to clear, and the sun poked through the clouds. It was a lovely Saturday afternoon, and many families and single swimmers were enjoying the pool. We jumped in for another 45 min session, and I enjoyed the feel of the sun warming me as I swam.
Once dried and dressed, we headed back across the park and hopped on an Overground train to Hampstead Heath in search of the Ladies Pond, our final stop. We knew the pond closed at 4:30, so we aimed to get there just before 4pm. The Heath was glorious; the sun was now fully out and there were people scattered all over the rolling hills enjoying the good day. I felt lucky to be sharing the afternoon with some good friends and grateful there were so many outdoor swimming options scattered around the city.
To my surprise, the chalkboard outside the pond indicated the water temperature was 13 C. Are people even allowed to enter the water in a public pond when it's that cold? There must be some mistake. The salty lifeguard assured me the temperature was correct. A few old-timers who had just climbed out of the water also confirmed the water was quite chilly. Still, I noted the smiles on their faces when delivering this news. After delaying as long as possible, all four of us peeled off our warm layers, put on the dry suits we had saved for this final swim, and stood looking at the water, wondering who would go first.
My three companions eased themselves in, and after a few screeches and gulps, happily started breast stroking down to the far end of the pond. I remained stuck halfway down the ladder, the bottom half of my legs quickly losing all feeling. The lifeguard, eyeing my bikini and tanned skin, rightly pegged me for a cold-water softie and recommended I stay close to the ladder for an easier exit strategy. I finally managed to ease my entire body into the water and joined my friends breast-stroking close to the ladders. It was glorious. My body slowly adjusted and my skin felt very tingly. After about ten minutes (maybe), I stroked my way back to the ladder and slowly climbed out. My friends managed a few more laps while I retreated to the warmish showers.
Though I didn't manage to stay in the water for very long, I'm glad I experienced such cold water. It left me feeling euphoric. All four of us felt particularly buoyed by the afternoon, and our walk back down to Hampstead Village (with a stop at the pub for a pint and bag of crisps) was lovely. Now I understand a bit more about what might motivate those swimmers who manage to continue to get wet all throughout the winter. It's a treat to swim in the open air amidst the elements, and the cold water really does enliven you. If you haven't taken advantage of the many outdoor swimming venues throughout London that remain open all year, you might want to add this to your list of things to do this winter. You won't regret the swim!