It’s the routines I’ve missed in lockdown. All those rhythms and rituals that used to drive a week forward — the regular Tuesday lunch date or Thursday pilates class, the overpriced morning coffee that eased you into the day. But though I can’t say I’ve particularly longed for the 59 bus, I have been desperate to be allowed back in my local lido, where before lockdown I swam week in, week out, through the coldest winter months right up until lockdown in March. You can keep your pubs and salons — I’ve been wanting for nothing more than 50m of freezing water.
Waiting in a distanced queue in the sunshine for my pre-booked slot at Brockwell Lido in south London, it’s clear that popping for a swim won’t be quite the same in this post-lockdown world. There are strict time limits on your swim, your name and photograph are taken on arrival, you’re required to sanitise before going through the turnstiles, and the changing rooms are strictly out of bounds (instead, it’s a shimmy out of your cossie on the poolside situation). But, as I wait with a mixture of old timers and newbies for my inaugural dip, I still feel like a seven year old on Christmas morning.
There is much chat about the illicit swims people have managed to get in over the past four months. Someone bagged a couple in the Serpentine before it closed its gates in May, another gave Charlton (the first to reopen) a go on Sunday, but was disappointed to discover it was heated — “bloody wimps” — another had made several pilgrimages to a river in Surrey to get her cold water fix.
I’ve missed this community of swimmers deeply. It’s a strange pastime, to chuck yourself into water that in February can fall below five degrees. But it forges this band of brilliant people of all ages and stages who over time I’ve grown to cherish. There is nothing quite like a lido changing room bustling with women of all shapes and sizes to make you pick up the bundle of insecurities you lug around with you and throw them in the bin. While loitering for a chat remains strictly forbidden, I’ll miss the warmth of these ambling conversations with women who I know by their swimming costume rather than their name (there’s chic green Scandi lady, pink lobster print lady, the fabulous curly-haired woman who always makes interesting conversation in the shower).
Women rule the lido, you see. My friend Martha and I have met for weekly swims for the past year, and in the dark winter months we’d arrive feeling bleary-eyed and wimpy, but then watch a septuagenarian stride barefoot across the frozen tiles and give ourselves a talking to. There’s a feeling that how you enter the water says something about you, and there does tend to be a gender divide. In January, as the sun rose over the pool, we’d watch 30-something men — always in expensive wetsuits that let you know they are a Very Serious Triathlete Actually — perform a sort of haka-esque routine, grunting and jumping up and down, bracing themselves for the cold water. They’d storm through two lengths in the fast lane before hauling themselves out with much panting, and heading straight for the sauna.
The women of the lido, meanwhile, are a hardier bunch who pull on any old swimming costume and glide into the icy water adorned with nothing more than a bobble hat and a look of pure bliss. There is minimal fuss, just a gritty resolution to get in and get going.
Once, in February, when the water was around six degrees, I was feeling a bit pathetic so allowed myself an extra five minutes in the relative warmth of the empty changing room. A heavily pregnant woman walked in and began undressing, a look of bloody-minded determination on her face. “I’m a week overdue,” she told me as she pulled a polka dot swimming costume over her bump. “If this doesn’t shock the little bugger out I don’t know what will.” I followed her out to the pool and watched in awe as she pelted towards the deep end, putting the triangular-shaped men in the next lane dipping their toes in and wincing to shame.
It is always worth the initial shock. By the time you turn at the end of the first length the pain has been replaced with a familiar kind of elation, and as I sink into the water (a positively balmy 20 degrees) it almost seems worth the four month wait. It’s just as heavenly as I remembered it.
There have been complaints in recent weeks about how long it has taken to get outdoor pools up and running again. While other outdoor pursuits were permitted, lidos and leisure centres seemed to have been forgotten about. Swim England is now backing a nationwide campaign urging the Government to commit £800 million to support the recovery of public leisure facilities. It fears that without additional support from the Government, there will be fewer pools for community use in the future, which for thousands of recreational swimmers like me (not to mention the millions of children who learn how to swim at leisure centres) would be a terrible blow.
Swimming is a rather more solitary experience, post-Covid. The lanes have been widened to accommodate distancing and swimming two abreast isn’t allowed, so Martha and I can no longer talk rubbish as we complete our lengths. It feels slightly more like exercise when you can’t have a chat, which has never really been the point. But it is still the most relaxing thing I can possibly think of doing. For now, I am thrilled to be back in the water. Although if we still can’t use the hot showers in the changing rooms come November some kind of heated slanket may become a necessity.