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Wednesday 27 April 2016

The Swimmer: 4 Outdoor Swims in February Separated by Cake and a Half Marathon

So Liz and I had an adventure. 

A swimming adventure.
A running adventure.
A freezing-cold no-wetsuits-allowed adventure.
An adventure with cake and swans and rivers and lakes and lidos.

Liz and Me!
See that gorgeous looking bakery behind us ... that's where we all met up!
Our adventure was The Swimmer, a 13 mile run from North to South through central London which includes 4 outdoor swims. In February. You go for a (chilly) run, have a (chilly) dip, (chilly) run to the next location, have a (chilly) dip ... and so on until you reach the final (chilly) location. After which you get into the (hot) jacuzzi. 

The event happens on the 2nd Saturday of every month from autumn to spring, October to May and is inspired by the short story The Swimmer by John Cheever, which follows the progress of a man who attempts to swim home via his neighbours’ swimming pools. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect of The Swimmer and I certainly didn’t know what to pack. We were given the option to take a large bag which travels in a van and arrives at the 2nd, 3rd and 4th swims for you but you still had to carry your necessities and everything you’d need for the 1st swim. It seemed to be a fine line between trying to choose between what I would need and what I could carry on my back. I ditched the towel, having already decided to wear a trisuit (wetsuits NOT allowed) and determined I would layer up over my quick drying suit and try and dry out on the run. I also decided not to bother with a spare swimsuit or knickers and instead use the saved space for a REALLY big woolly hat and ski gloves. I saved the BIG bag for snacks and clothes to change into which didn’t involve lycra or waterproofing properties.   

The starting point was Gail’s Cafe near Hampstead Tube station. Liz and I had no idea where this cafe was and decided we’d wing it ... hoping we’d spot some obvious swimmers on the train (goggles around necks, webbed feet or gills) and our optimism paid off when we spotted some colourful running tights and a chap with a hooded top advertising some sort of ice swim. We struck up a conversation and arrived as a group at a brightly lit cafe stuffed with French cakes and ordered a hot coffee each.  

The group of people stuffed into the cafe at 7:30am was an eclectic bunch with characters ranging from experienced cold-water swimmers (including one brave chap who had swum at every event over the winter!) to runners wanting something different to their usual winter run training. And then there was me. Who enjoys swimming in (warm) lakes in the summer, while tucked snugly into a wetsuit and with a cup of coffee and biscuits waiting for me after I climbed out of the balmy waters. I suspected I might be in for a cold awakening.  However everyone was very friendly, welcoming and wanted to chat and share their swim stories. 

We eventually prised ourselves from the lovely warm cafe and wandered shivering out into the cold street for the start. It was very relaxed. After loading our big bags into the convenient van, loading our essential kit bags onto our backs and adjusting the swimsuits under our clothes - and hoping they didn’t chafe or rub – we set off at a gentle run pace through the prettier parts of Hampstead.

We soon came onto the heath proper, undulating trails and tree-shaded paths. It was cold, but gorgeous and early enough to only see the hardcore runners and the occasional dog walker. The run was short and we arrived at the Hampstead natural ponds within about ten minutes. These are 3 ponds of the 30 in the Hampstead Heath area dug in the 17th & 18th centuries as reservoirs and fed by the headwater springs of the River Fleet.

Yes .. it was still VERY early ...
Two of the three ponds are for single-sex bathing and we were to swim at the Men’s Ponds. To get to these you enter via the old fashioned open-air changing rooms. It felt very Victorian which added to the charm and the ladies were told to avert their eyes while moving through the men’s changing section. 

Not knowing what to expect of the swim, what to bring, I’d decided to wear a trisuit (basically a swimsuit with legs used for triathlon) and layer up over the top of it for the runs. So neoprene cap, trisuit and goggles ... and my waterproof camera on a strap on my head. Coming out of the wooden changing rooms, the pools lay in front of us, quiet and serene.  To get into the pools, you walked along a long wooden-planked boardwalk and descended into the quiet water via steps.

I was expecting a burning, freezing cold but this wasn’t what it was like. It was chill and greenly opaque but not painfully cold but I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to warm up to run. Could I run after a cold swim? I’d certainly find out. 

After my swim and wearing ALL the clothes.
I didn’t stay in for long. I’d had my dip and aware that it was early February and I had limited experience of cold water swimming, I clambered out using the steps and made my way up to the charming wooden changing rooms to layer up my clothes.  

It was a relaxed 1 mile run to the next swim at the Parliament Hill Lido. Having chatted to the others, they’d told me that this swim was the toughest as you hadn’t been running for long enough to warm up on the run from the swim at the pools. The lido was built low to the ground and as you ran towards it through the park, Parliament Hill was visible on the right, usually seen by a club runner with hundreds of cross country runners descending it with spikes churning the ground and breath huffing out into the chill air. The lido lay grey and regal in its 1930s style waiting for us all top come in and enter the cool blue water. It was built in 1938 and is open all year round. You can quite easily imagine bright 1930s and 40s posters of brightly capped swimmers splashing through the blue waters. It feels old-fashioned and lovely, the age of proper swimmers with floral caps and vintage swimsuits. The lido is Grade 2 listed and when it was built in 1938 it cost £34,000 – a great cost at that time for a lido. 

Guess where ...

I stepped from under the stone entryway and entered the lido via the swimming-pool-style steps. The coolness of the water took my breath away in a way the pond hadn’t. Maybe it looking similar to an indoor swimming pool had made me expect the warmth of a pool, but the clear blue waters were deceptively chill. I swam down to the 2nd set of steps in a slow crawl putting my face in the water. Swimming in an outdoor pool as an adult was new to me. It was strange swimming in cold waters as clear as these and the thick paint on the stone sides took me back to my childhood and swimming in the outdoor pool in Street with my sister while my Auntie and Uncle watched from the picnic blanket on the grass at the poolside. I remember those summer days at Street as always hot and the ice cream as the most delicious and the jerk of nostalgia was strong.

I made a beginners’ error after my swim and taking advantage of available showers, stepped briefly under the strong hot water before remembering that this was exactly what you shouldn’t do after an outdoor swim as apparently it brings the blood to your skin and can make you lightheaded. Not what you need when you still have 11 miles to run and 2 outdoors swims to go. I hastily turned the shower to cold and stood under it for a few minutes, bringing the coolness back to my chill skin. 

The dash for the bananas ...

I layered my clothes on top of my drying trisuit, buff on neck, gloves on hands and hat on head and went to join the other swimrunners at the front of the lido for a banana and a drink.

It was 5 miles to the next swim in the Serpentine and the group of runners spread out as people took advantage of the longer distance to chat and relax into their easy paces. We had a brief stop at Primrose Hill for photographs and I popped my video camera on to try to film some of the route as I ran. It was a lovely run, past London Zoo, past bemused early morning walkers and across some busy roads but people clapped as we passed, cars let us cross – except for the taxis of course – and small children stared as we zipped past them on our soft-soled running shoes.

Primrose Hill (Beautiful but VERY cold!)

We chatted as we ran. One lady was training for Brighton marathon and was on for her 4 hour goal ... having missed it by mere seconds last time, another swimrunner was an obstacle course racer – but wanted a change from the mud and furious paced runs today, others were speedy marathoners and dedicated ultrarunners. It was a real mix but the common thing was that everyone was friendly and welcoming. It really did seem true that the message on the website “If you’re nice, you’ll fit in” was true. 

We ran through Hyde Park, full of horse tracks and feeling not at all as if it were in Central London and crossed the river to arrive at The Serpentine, a 40 acre recreational lake which takes its name from the curving snakelike shape – despite having only one bend.  We were swimming at Lansbury’s Lido which was opened in 1930 and this morning was being patrolled only by swans, no swimmers.

The changing rooms weren’t open yet so the women braved the grassy banks decorated with winter twigs and green swan poo to get changed, while the men stood on the cold pavement to disrobe. Head down, removing layers and relieved again to be wearing my trisuit and not have to show my white winter skin to the cold rain, biting wind or occasional dog walker, I put on my neoprene swim hat, adjusted my goggles and went to brave The Serpentine. The water was cold and green and there were beady-eyed swans between me and where I wanted to get out. The water was cold but in February I should have expected this. The water had originally come from the River Westbourne and Tyburn Brook and then pumped from the Thames, but it now comes from three boreholes within Hyde Park rather than the Arctic Ocean … which is what it felt like. After avoiding an iceberg or two, I tried to get out but this wasn’t as easy as it looked. Avoiding the swans, I tried to climb the sides but they appeared to be coated in glass and grease and I slid backwards. My fellow swimmers were having the same problems. The swans were laughing. 

Finally extricating myself from the water, I layered up, caked up and got started on the final 6 miles to the Rockwell Lido. The swims were only part of the attraction of our swim-run adventure, the chat and the camaraderie between the runners, passing London Zoo, navigating the busy-ness of Knightsbridge and Clapham Common and the sharing of  stories were what made our mid-February pan-London journey.  

Powered by chatter and cake, we arrived at Brockwell Park and the Grade II listed lido came into sight. The Brockwell Lido looks very similar to Parliament Hill Lido and both had the same designers; Harry Rowbotham and TL Smithson. Brockwell Lido was built in 1937 to replace the bathing pond but closed in 1990 re-opening again in 1994 after a local campaign and is now open every day, all year round. 

I was looking forward to my final swim, sad that my mini-adventure was over but I’d heard rumours on the run. Interesting rumours about massive breakfasts and a hot tub. These sort of rumours are especially interesting to someone who had an early start, 4 cold - but enjoyable - swims and a 13 mile trot through London.

I stepped into the Brockwell Lido, carefully using the shiny silver steps and adjusting my swimming cap, feeling as though I was a 1930s lady in one of the posters stepping into the inviting blue waters of a lovely pool. It was quite a shock that the water wasn’t half as warm as it looked, but the naughty joy of swimming outdoors in February under a winter sky quite made up for that. 

And the rumours about the lido having a hot tub were quite true.

Fancy a go at the Swimmer? Open from Autumn to Spring, it’s £20 entry including, guided 13 mile run, 4 swims, cake and bananas. More info here: 

Information from here: 

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