There’s a queue outside Hampstead Ladies’ Pond most mornings when it opens. Even when the water has frozen over and sensible folk are preoccupied with trying to throw on as many layers as possible before de-icing their car windscreens, the swimmers turn up and wait for the lifeguards to let them take their early dip in the cold waters. The three swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath are old and famous and popular. The Mixed Pond is open during the summer, but the other two have swimmers in them year round. The Men’s Pond is large and open, the light often silvery. The Ladies’ Pond is screened off by trees. It feels separate, not just from London but from the Heath around it. I swim there often, enjoying the fizzing feeling of really cold water. There’s a kingfisher, and a sardonic heron. The mallards and tufted ducks are so used to women bobbing along next to them that they don’t even bother to swim out of my way as I come closer. I always feel as though I should say ‘hello’ to the ducks when I get especially close and our eyes lock.
I noticed a sign in the changing room at the Ladies’ Pond which noted wild swimming was ‘having a moment’ and that it could be surprising and a bit frustrating to find the place so busy, even on cold mornings. Wild swimming is indeed having a moment, and not just in places that feel wild, like Cumbria, where I also swim regularly. London has so many bathing spots which are filling up with new swimmers keen to understand why cold water is so addictive and so good for their health.
Just down the road from the Ponds is the Parliament Hill Lido. There aren’t any herons or kingfishers, but this pool does have a silvery bottom that sparkles, even on grey days when London feels boring and not at all wild. Like a few famous London lidos, it has a sauna. Tooting Bec is another Lido with a sauna culture. Swimmers dry off quickly behind the green, red, yellow and blue wooden changing room doors, before congregating in the little wooden hut to one side of the fabulous 1930s fountain and discussing their theories about life.
In the warmer months, Tooting, nearby Brockwell, and Uxbridge have the same sort of pool etiquette as indoor swimming sites. You shouldn’t do breaststroke in the fast lane unless you really have qualified for the Olympics, you should get out of the way of freestyle swimmers as they either can’t see you or don’t want to see you, and if you fancy a chat with a friend, you shouldn’t really be in a lane at all.
The Serpentine in Hyde Park has a swimming club which meets from before dawn until 9.30am every day. I swim there before work, enjoying swans swooshing over my head. The club can go beyond the floating marked Lido area, but again there’s an etiquette about your route around. Like other cold water spots, the Serpentine is proudly spartan, and the only time you’ll see a wetsuit is in the summer, when the triathletes turn up, strutting a little on the jetty before diving in.
I find the warmer months a little frustrating. Queues form outside my favourite lidos – some even employed bouncers last year to stop fights during the heatwave. I took to swimming at a historic bathing spot in the Thames at Marble Hill in Richmond. There are steps leading down to the water, and as you get in, you’ll see dozens of blue damselflies hovering. Great Crested Grebes are shy birds but I can get much closer to them in the water and admire their stilly plumage which looks as though they’ve had a mod haircut. There’s a current at this spot, though, and so it’s not for weak swimmers. It’s also not always safe to swim, as the sewage works upstream can overflow during heavy rain. A campaign by charity London Waterkeeper calls for Thames Water to provide live information on when its sewers are polluting the river, and also organises group swims. From Putney Bridge down, the tidal Thames is controlled by the Port of London Authority, and you cannot swim without explicit permission, though I’m not sure why you’d want to take a dip in such busy waters anyway.
Some people just aren’t sure why you’d want to dip in cold water at all. London has many heated outdoor pools where the steam rises lazily from the water as swimmers swoosh about. Pools on the Park in Richmond, London Fields Lido and Hampton Pool are all warm lidos. It’s not the same experience, but you can stay in a great deal longer than the five minutes that most swimmers take when the water is freezing.
All of the swimmers at these pools, though, have something in common. They swim out of an admiration of what the human body can do, rather than how it looks. You won’t find many swimmers who give a fig about looking ‘beach body ready’. Instead, for them, the ultimate test is whether their bodies are ice ready. And that’s much more fun.