Would you swim in The Thames? We are not so sure, but it’s a popular location for avid swimmers – in the parts they can actually kick their legs out, that is – as we found out when reading Jenny Landreth’s new book, Swimming London. You will all have your own favourites – and if you do, please let us know – but here are our top five, introduced by Jenny herself…
1 Tooting Bec Lido
Full disclosure: I swim here all year round, through sun and snow, fog and rain; I’m least likely to be here on that blazing summer day when you have to pick your way delicately across the bodies slabbed out on the poolside paving, because I know how it feels to swim here alone.
My book features London’s finest – but Tooting Bec Lido tops the lot, not least in size. Its 91m length makes it the largest lido in the UK, beating Jesus Green in Cambridge by dint of being over twice as wide – 33m to their 15m. That width is longer than the length of a standard 25m public pool. Open to the public from mid-May until the end of September, it runs a thriving winter membership scheme the rest of the year. There’s only one other unheated London lido – Parliament Hill – open all through the year to the public.
The lido started life as TootingBathingLake in 1906, when digging this massive million-gallon hole was seen as a fine way of occupying local unemployed men. Men built it, they got to play in it – women were grudgingly allowed in for one day a week only. It officially became a lido in the 1930s, when it acquired ‘facilities’: a filtration system, a tiered-cake fountain and doors on the cubicles so mixed bathing could commence. Those cubicles are now one of the most iconic images of the place, rows of wooden hutches with corrugated roofs down each narrow pool side, their doors painted red, blue, yellow and green. In the 1990s, a new entrance was built at the shallow end, in Art Deco style (although the pool pre-dates the period by some 30 years). Two changing/shower roundels were also added, made of concrete and steel, which can be pretty unforgiving materials even in summer. A toddlers’ pool was built on the grassed area, which on summer days disappears under a sea of blankets and picnics and buggies and sunbathers. There’s a wooden sauna cabin in one corner where most winter swimmers huddle gratefully (there is a hardcore for whom a sauna is unnecessary cosseting). There are plans now to adapt the original 1906 entrance, still used in winter, into a modern facility for members and lifeguards.
Whichever entrance you use, whichever bit of detailing you admire or not, the pool itself remains as it always has: an enormous blue slab in the heart of Tooting Common. Shielded by trees all round, it feels incredibly protected yet gloriously open. It’s possible to entirely forget where you are – 20 minutes from central London; even the noise of the racing trains barely disrupts. It can feel daunting even to the regular swimmer, checking the temperature, wondering: can I make it to the deep end before my fingers freeze? It’s a sight for sore eyes, a salve and a sanctuary. Were it not for the fact it would make it too crowded, swimming here should be compulsory.
Tooting Bec Road SW16 1RU; 020 8871 7198; dcleisurecentres.co.uk
2 RAC Club
Be in no doubt: this is right at the centre of a very particular kind of privilege. Establishment, old-boy privilege, royal privilege even, since (if one listens to whispers) the Queen was taught to swim here. The dates do fit at a pinch – she was born in 1926, and there was no pool at BuckinghamPalace until 1938, so this could have been her London pool until she was 12. She would only have got in, of course, on a ‘daughters or wives’ ticket – now it’s progressed a little, and women can be members as long as they are dressed with ‘commensurate formality’, which fortunately means a standard swimming costume.
The location is Pall Mall, and the building is all railings and carriage lamps and huge revolving doors; at the time of writing, there was an actual car displayed in the foyer. The health club is downstairs, and on the way down the impressive carved stone staircase, you get a first glimpse of the pool. As befits one of only three Grade II-listed pools in London, it looks rather special.
To call the facilities ‘changing rooms’ is to do them a great disservice. Through heavy wooden doors into a hushed area lit by table lamps, you are assigned a rough-curtained booth, each containing a small, dark-wood bed with crisp white linen. This is boarding school meets gentlemen’s club, but not intimidatingly so – the décor is almost shabby in places. Visitors then pad past the Turkish baths, steam room, sauna and freezing plunge pool.
It looked special from the staircase, and it is. Firstly, the room is gorgeous; huge, beautifully mosaiced pillars, curved alcoves with long latticed windows, narrow gilt railings. It’s lit by white flame lamps on narrow metal stands, and had the faded glamour of an old film star. Equally, a toga or two wouldn’t look out of place, and nor does the modern wicker seating. The real star, though, is the pool. It’s 26.3m long and lined with Italian marble past its best, its worn beauty all adding to the charm.
The colour of the stone and the soft lighting gives the water a subtle green tinge; it’s a calmer colour than that modern too-sharp blue. The water is kept at the standard 28 degrees, and it’s almost a surprise to see normal lane ropes and speed signs; you’d expect something bespoke. What isn’t obvious until you know it is there is no smell of chlorine: the pool has a more expensive ozone treatment, which needs comparatively tiny amounts of chlorine.
The depth change (from 1m to 2.3m) and the drop from deck to water mean this isn’t a fast pool; so take it slowly and enjoy the space.
89 Pall Mall SW1Y 5HS; 020 7747 3365; royalautomobileclub.co.uk
3 Ironmonger Row Baths
There’s so much history attached to this building it’s impossible to do it justice in this confined space. It seems particularly, apt, then that the building works on this latest incarnation were delayed by months because of archaeological finds on the site. It’s Grade II-listed and dates from 1931, and the full story is on the walls of the building itself, decorated as they are with storyboards detailing how the pool moved from the old days into the new. The oral histories from locals, stories of parents watching galas, of newly arrived immigrants finding a sense of home, of a community gathered round water, are quite some testament to the power inherent in a building.
A massive cream stone slab above the entrance into which the words ‘Ironmonger Row Baths’ are carved seems highly symbolic of this power. It’s modern but permanent and substantial; it is craftsmanship. A simple black and white sign strapped to the side of the building, with the words ‘BATHS’ running down it, replaces one that mysteriously used to say ‘Swimming Turkish Baths. Contours.’ That they kept the original name, too, rather than Leisure-Centrifying it, is indicative of how seriously the building’s past has been taken and what it represents. This balancing act of old and new is a tricky one to pull off – have they done it?
Inside, this celebrated pool has been lovingly brought into a new era. You get a first glimpse through a letterbox window in reception (and thus, obviously, a view of reception while you swim). It is set in a stylish hall with great detailing – the spectator seats, for instance, look more like church pews – and there’s little of that garish plastic that pervades most pools; the colour scheme is a delicate beige, white and Hail Mary blue, heritage over fashion. There’s lots of natural light through sizeable windows including a flat, glazed ice-cream wafer right down the centre of the ceiling, which is a harmonious shallow curve. The pool itself is 33m long, sloping down in gentle ledges until it drops into a proper deep end. That it is an infinity pool detailed with pristine white tiles gives a clean simplicity to the whole atmosphere, which is very attractive, very calm. There’s a separate children’s pool, but it’s a shame that they didn’t return the diving boards to the deep end.
There is much to admire in the rest of the building, too. A cool modern marble staircase leads to the gallery, which includes a carefully restored original slipper bath with working tap. You can then walk down an original staircase, to a hallway from the old building, and into a modern community laundry. You’ll find more of the story told on boards in little side annexes. Downstairs they’ve treated the famous Turkish Hammam with the same respect; you can get modern spa treatments there but it’s hard to beat the beautifully refurbished traditional hot and cold rooms.
Ironmonger Row, 1 Norman Street EC1V 3AA; 020 3642 5520; better.org.uk/leisure/ironmonger-row-baths
4 Hampton Pool
Another pool another campaign history, this time revolving around a local council’s desire to close it and a group of committed swimmers deciding to take it over and run it themselves, people willing to put themselves out for the greater swimming good. Their reward is not selfish, shared as it is with thousands of other people – this is a very busy and successful pool.
Why so busy and successful? Two obvious reasons: it’s outdoors, and it’s heated. We love an outdoor pool, don’t we, despite – or perhaps because of – our climate. Maybe such pools speak to some part of our cold, repressed selves, fed up with being battered down by chilly north winds, and maybe these places satisfy, however fleetingly, a need to feel just a little bit free under our own terms. And of course the ‘heated’ part of the equation makes that ‘free’ sensation a bit more reasonable – we may be primal warriors, but we’re sensible primal warriors.
And Hampton Pool is certainly heated. Even on a mild day it’s a positively tropical 28 degrees, which means there’s steam coming off the pool. One might conclude that this is too hot to be a serious swimmer’s pool, but the number of plastic bottles and waterproofed training schedules at the shallow end at any given time of the day shows that’s not true. It’s also 36m long, which means you can brush up on your maths (how many lengths makes a mile? 45 lengths is just over a mile) while you enjoy your swim.
First, though, there’s the car park to negotiate, so pot-holed it’s practically Derbyshire. The changing facilities are smart enough, bright and primary-coloured, but be careful: there’s a frosted-glass door between the changing bit and the loos and if you’re going to scamper around naked twixt the two, that door is sometimes left open. As well as the main pool there’s a small children’s pool, and both are set into a flat field that looks like the back garden of a semi-rural pub, with plastic chairs and white-painted brick outbuildings. There used to be a diving board at one end but it hasn’t survived; the only ‘fun’ way to get in is via an old slide (not recommended for anyone over 12 stone). There are usually two or three swimming lanes taking up half the pool, with the other half free-form, though as the lanes are quite narrow, making overtaking a very conscious choice. But that’s balanced by the warm fatigue at the end of a session, from the extra energy exerted by frequently overtaking people.
One of the pleasures of a good swim is the coffee afterwards, and there’s plenty of space on the roof terrace to sit and drink one, eat a bowl of porridge maybe, and watch and learn from other swimmers.
High Street TW12 2ST; 020 8255 1116; hamptonpool.co.uk
5 Hampstead Ponds
The challenge here is not a swimming one. The challenge here is to encapsulate in a few words a place that really merits an entire book. These historic, iconic ponds have been written about many times before but, like a glamorous olden-days film star, they manage to be famous yet feel quite secret. What they have is enigmatic, hard to quantify, and can only really be understood by experiencing the ponds first-hand.
The mystique of the ponds is built from very ordinary materials. The spluttering outdoor showers are cold. The changing rooms are like deserted cowsheds. The simple platforms for entering the water are made from old wood and functional grey metal poles. State of the art it is not. But these basic things in the context of this heath have become something plainly extraordinary, something that feels like another world.
Hampstead Heath, an ancient green land of paths and hills and woods and aimless wandering, has three swimmable ponds: separate men’s and women’s ponds towards the northeast of the Heath, open to the public all year, and a mixed pond down in the southwest corner open from May to September. They have been swum in for hundreds of years by champions, tourists and ordinary Londoners brought together by their love of being out in the open air and the fresh water, surrounded by trees and reeds, with the possibility of a kingfisher flashing past or the grey ghost of a heron overhead.
It isn’t quite true that the challenge is not a swimming one: the water is cold and brackish, your hands become almost invisible as they slide ahead of you in the olive green. And ‘secret’, too, might be disingenuous; the ponds can be packed on a blue-sky day – but there’s a ‘no kids under eight’ rule. There are precautionary signs up on hypothermia, but there’s no official guidance on how to deter nosy coots or jumping carp – a certain amount of respect is required. There is no visibility here, no lines to follow on the bottom of the pool, no certainty about what’s directly under your feet. And swimming with that uncertainty, an apprehension, almost fear, of what might brush your skin, is as adrenaline-inducing as the cold water.
History inevitably brings politics, and there is plenty of both here. The history includes great photos of early Victorian bathing, tales of men lining the banks of the women’s pond to watch the ‘modern Spartans’ bathe. The politics are sexual, local and financial: swimming here used to be free but now costs £2, and in the past there has been hysterical reporting about gay activity and the covering of nipples (female) at the single-sex pools. And our own modern Spartans, the swimmers who break the ice here for winter dips, still attract open-mouthed attention, mostly revolving around the word ‘why’.
Hampstead Heath NW3; 020 7485 3873
Extracted from Swimming London by Jenny Landreth, out on 1 May priced at £12.99