A journey into cold-water swimming
A few friends were positively evangelical about the joys of cold-water lido swimming, though ‘joy’ didn’t quite square with their descriptions of being chilled to the bone, and too cold to speak. Getting uncomfortably cold to swim a few lengths then shower, dress, and struggle to warm up seemed rather pointless, but my curiosity was piqued about why people find it so compelling, and I decided to give it a go. This is my experience of lido swimming from autumn 2017 to autumn 2018 in the fabulous Brockwell Lido in South London.
Opened originally in July 1937, Brockwell Lido was closed in 1990 as a cost-saving measure by Lambeth Borough Council. It re-opened in 1994 after public lobbying, and began to open to swimmers all year round from 2014 onwards. This lovely art deco building was given a Grade 2 listing in 2003. The pool is 50 metres in length – a perfect distance to get into a steady rhythm.
On my first day in the lido, at 17.1 degrees, the water feels cold but welcoming. Swimming towards the deep-end, the water below me is alive with reflections dancing on the turquoise-painted floor of the pool. As I lift my head to breathe, I glimpse trees in the surrounding parkland, swaying in gentle breezes. On the return length the sun is dazzlingly bright, with sunlight mirroring the pool’s surface in shimmering silver.
On my second day the sky is a mat of thick grey cloud. A dim circle of sunshine briefly glimmers through the grey to highlight the moving surface of the water, disturbed by swimmers into a gentle choppiness. After 16 lengths (800 metres), the cold is wrapping itself insistently around limbs, and my feet are going numb, so I stop. The following week I increase the distance to 20 lengths (1000 metres). When in the water I don’t feel too cold, but even after a hot shower I struggle to get properly warm again. By my last swim of the month, the water is a surprising, delightful 18 degrees. Gliding happily through the water, I immerse myself in the pleasure and relaxation of swimming.
As I set off for my first October lido swim on a dull, mild day, the trees in Brockwell Park are dropping papery copper leaves, ready for children to rustle through. In the pool, the cold is an invisible presence that folds itself caressingly around you. At a temperature of 15 degrees, as you sink in and swim those first few strokes, the water sleeves your arms in cold, wraps a tight cummerbund of chill around your ribs, and envelopes tummy and thighs in a cool skirt that winds loosely around your legs.
My final October swim begins to test my mettle. Adjusting to the 13-degree water temperature takes four lengths of slow, head-up breast stroke, followed by two of alternating crawl and breast stroke, until the cold, stinging my eyebrows, becomes tolerable and I can keep my face in the water. After several enjoyable lengths of crawl the cold gets me in its grip: my swimming is slower, splashier and less co-ordinated.
Brockwell Park is alive with autumn colour under clear blue skies, and the sun is melting the overnight frost as I head to the lido in early November. Swimming in cold water when there’s frost on the ground presents something of a mental hurdle. (The lifeguards perched high on their ladder chairs are huddled in several layers, woolly hats, and blankets.) Every rational thought advises against it. But cold paving slabs quickly chill your feet and by the time you’ve walked through the icy air to sit at the edge of the pool, dangling your feet into the water, then gingerly sliding in, it doesn’t feel shockingly cold.
The warm red brick of the art deco building is reflected in the pool water. A low sun blinds me on my return length from the deep end. All I can see is a white orb which, semi-obscured by a large tree, becomes a sunburst of rays ending in rainbow prisms of light.
Most days this month are surprisingly sunny. Even when it’s dull, swimming outside is lovely. Pleasures include watching the wind whip the surface of the water into scurrying ripples, feeling the breeze on my face, smelling the wood smoke curling up from the sauna chimney, and seeing the winter trees, stark black coral fans against grey skies.
Fellow swimmers in the sauna and the changing room exchange tips on cold-water acclimatisation: they recommend swimming around one length per degree of water temperature (two if you’re really up for a challenge), and wearing close-fitting neoprene gloves and boots when the water temperature drops below 10 degrees.
This month the cold grips rather than caresses. Your body tenses against the cold and your breath comes faster as you launch into those first strokes. Getting your breathing even, immersing your face in the cold water and keeping to a streamlined stroke are harder to achieve and can’t be sustained for long. It’s still oddly exhilarating, though, despite the cold.
On 30 November the water temperature in the lido has dropped to a chilly 6.9 degrees. I complete eight lengths of breast stroke. As I get out, the lifeguard warns me not to slip on the ice, where puddles formed by dripping swimmers have frozen over. Then it’s a quick dash to the hot hug of the sauna.
To the casual onlooker, the activity in the sauna can look quite bizarre. People with raised arms pump them up and down; someone whips his towel around like a lasso. There’s method in this madness as these actions circulate the hot air, so you feel warmer quicker.
I’m persuaded to attempt the double-dip (leaving the sauna to go back into the water). Emerging into the cold air with red mottled skin, soft curls of steam stream off my hot body. Much to my surprise I find that my quick immersion into the extreme cold of the water is invigorating rather than chilling. Then back into the snug of the sauna. By the time I reach home soft flurries of snow are falling.
By now I’m completely hooked. Swimming in indoor pools instead doesn’t begin to compare with the revitalising cold of a swim in the lido. As my arms stretch wide in breast-stoke, a bow of icy chill spreads across my chest, collar bone and upper arms. Hands, feet, bare legs, chin and mouth soon feel numb. The azure blue of the pool is broken by abstract reflections of red brick walls, and the white of cornices, doors and window frames. Palm trees in pots give it a tropical look and it could be summer but for the frost coating every surface and the intense cold.
Surprisingly, it has become easy for me to get into water that’s less than 5 degrees. Logically, you know that if you hesitate you will only get colder. It’s best to get in quickly and unceremoniously, focusing your attention on the pleasure of swimming. With each length the icy cold steals warmth from you, starting with your extremities and spreading to your core. When I leave the pool, my wetsuit shorts and gloves freeze onto the picnic bench, where I throw them as I dash into the sauna. Even after my shower, dressed in several layers and woolly hat, scarf and gloves, deep within my core my body sends out tremors of chill.
Returning to the lido after Christmas it is easy to get straight back in even though the first few days are dull, damp and grey. I don’t feel euphoric in the way I had on sunny days but I do feel livelier afterwards. Swimming in the rain in January brings its own delights: hundreds of rain droplets plink-plinking into the pool, dimpling the surface, pinging into the air again, splashing my skin, and bouncing off my swim cap, then feeling cosy in the sauna listening to the rain drumming on the roof.
As I set off for my first February swim there is a flurry of snowflakes, but the sun is out by the time as I slip into the water and begin to swim. The cold attacks instantly and harshly. Reaching the deep-end auto-pilot kicks in and despite the numbness in my body I find I’ve completed a second length. Pleasure begins to seep through the shock of the cold during the third length, and by the fourth length a sense of calm prevails. For the next two lengths I am the only person in the pool, enjoying the sensation of moving through the water and watching the sun dance on the surface. After two more lengths the cold begins to bite and I know it’s time to get out.
On my return to London I can’t wait to get back into the lido, despite the rain and being tired after a long drive the day before. The pool is leaking and the water level has dropped so low that I need to be careful not to graze my knees in a very shallow shallow end. The outside showers aren’t working because of frozen pipes and the sauna is lukewarm, but it’s still great to be back! Fellow swimmers tell me how magical swimming in the snow had been, with water temperatures of 3 degrees and air temperatures of minus 3 degrees, and show me their phone photos of snow round the pool and icicles dripping from the metal rail around it..
By early April, with water temperatures rising to around 9 degrees, I increase my swimming distance to 12 lengths or 600 metres. Easter is a time of heavy rains and the water-logged grass in Brockwell Park reflects cloudy skies in its puddles. The trees are slow to bud; the first signs are a fuzz of pale green coating branches like soft moss as the nascent buds prepare to open. By mid-April lucent light-green leaves are unfurling in the spring sunshine. At 13 degrees the water feels almost comfortable, and after 16 easy lengths I can shower and go, without needing revival time in the sauna.
After the early May heatwave, the pool temperature climbs to a heady 18.8! What joy to swim in only a swimsuit in comfortable, yet still refreshingly cold water: face-in-the-water crawl, length after length, in a clear turquoise pool, under bright blue skies with white cotton-wool clouds. By mid-May the trees in the park are thick with glossy new leaves, their canopies throwing circles of dense shade onto the grass below.
Late May brings a distinct change in the life of the lido. The water is still crystal clear but the chemicals are at a higher level because it’s warmer and there are more swimmers. A few sunbathers are out on towels or chairs. My sensations are not as heightened as they were in the intense cold, but my faster, longer swims feel like more of a workout, and it’s just as great to be outdoors. By the end of May, after a weekend of high humidity, with air temperatures up to 30 degrees and one hundred thousand lightning strikes across the UK, the temperature in the pool rises to over 20 degrees.
June to September
I spend nearly all of June in Devon, swimming regularly in the sea. July lido swims are my least favourite of the year. The water is very warm and heavily chlorinated. Greenish-black mould coats parts of the bottom of the pool. The pool and poolside are packed with people, a throng of bodies and noise. Sea swimming in Devon again in August is a welcome break from the bustling lido crowds. On my return to London in late September, the lido is idyllic again, with sunny weather and a perfect swimming temperature of around 15–16 degrees.
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So, what are my thoughts on the experience? I loved it! Part of the joy of year-round swimming is being close to nature, enjoying natural daylight and appreciating the changing seasons. The swimming is of course the main attraction, but the endorphin rush of the cold intensifies the senses, so you are highly attuned to your immediate surroundings. I particularly love the play of sunlight on moving water, the reflections and refracted light and the bright blues and turquoises – it’s like being immersed in a beautiful painting. On top of that there’s the company of other swimmers and the feeling of shared experience and camaraderie. Getting warm again in the cosy gipsy caravan-style sauna adds to the pleasure and sense of well-being. There are also the health benefits: claims for cold water swimming include increased burning of calories, improved immunity, better circulation, relief for the symptoms of arthritis, and heightened emotional wellbeing, so that you are more likely to be able to cope with stress, bereavement and depression.
Even when it’s dull and grey or when you’re feeling tired, swimming outdoors is a great way to start the day. You emerge feeling fresh, clear-headed and a pleasing combination of relaxed and energised, ready to get on with day ahead. I want to keep doing it, not because of the health benefits (though it’s nice to know it may be doing me good) but simply because I enjoy it.
A man in the sauna poetically described the lido as a dream world enclosed by four brick walls – an apt analogy, as I often feel I am stepping through a gate into a secret garden of calm and beauty.