Monthly Archives: June 2011

London Swimming Review: Serpentine Lido

For a city with a generally unimpressive number of indoor swimming pools, London makes up for it with plenty of more surprising options for a quick dip.

Swimmers ready for the plunge at Serpentine Lido

I’ve written warmly (don’t let that word confuse you about the temperature) before about Highgate Ponds, with separate men’s, women’s and mixed bathing ponds. The latter is ideal for those of mixed sex. Nearby Parliament Hill Lido makes for a lovely alternative, and there are other marvellous outdoor lidos at Brockwell Park, Tooting, London Fields and Hampton. The last two are let down a little by being heated.

Paddling pool...

...and children's play area

Until this week, however, I hadn’t tried the most central of the lot. The Serpentine Lido, right in the centre of Hyde Park, promised a dip in untreated water in the heart of London. The Serpentine is a large man-made lake created in 1730 by the waters of the River Westbourne but now fed by the Thames. It’s a haven for bird life and is the sort of lake which you’d normally hire a boat to row on a summer’s day. Unusually there’s swimming here, and has been since 1930.

View across the Lido from the bridge. Yes, you really are in central London...

Unlike Highgate Ponds, which offer a wonderful and deliberately spartan experience, there’s plenty here to make you feel like your £4 entrance fee is well spent. There are changing rooms, lockers (20p, refundable) and, once you get upstairs, a large lawn, paddling pool and playing area for kids. Nippers catered for, swimmers cross a bridge over the path – attracting odd looks from tourists at the cafe next door in the old Lido building – and go down steps to the water’s edge. The lake has sloping sides, so diving’s a no-no, so there’s a jetty to stroll, then steps to descend. As it’s late June the water is a balmy 18c, and as there’s no-one else in the water there are a few onlookers gawking from the cafe ensuring no prevaricating on the water’s edge.

Once in, the water is lovely, fresh and cool, and with plenty of space makes for very relaxing swimming. If you’re doing back crawl or breast stroke you can take in some of the landmarks of London visible from the water – the London Eye and the Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament are two to look out for. Upon exiting (cold shower at the waterside), you’re back in the land of normal non-cold-swimming types very fast, especially if you hop on one of Boris Bikes conveniently stationed nearby. The warm glow from such a lovely dip will stay with you on your travels around the British capital.

Incidentally, this was the second Olympic venue I’d been able to try out, having test-rafted the Canoe Slalom course at Lea Valley Watersports Centre in May. I’ll upload my report from this over the next few days. The Serpentine will host the 10k open water swimming race, which, having managed a few lengths of the 110m buoyed area, sounds like incredibly hard work.

Keen swimmers may wish to join the Serpentine Swimming Club, a hardy gang of enthusiasts who use the facilities right through winter.

When Haile Selassie went to Jerusalem

Old books burst with history, and sometimes in the most unexpected ways. So it proved with my dusty old copy of George Adam Smith’s Historical Geography of the Holy Land, which dates from 1897 and looks every one of its 114 years of age. HGOTHL is a fascinating read and was much in demand by European visitors to Palestine in the early years of the 20th century, but more on that another time. Something else was inside.

Scanned here, you can see the ancient page that fell out. ‘Sanctuary for the Lion of Judah‘ is H.V. Morton’s tale of ‘the defeated Emperor of Abyssinia seeking a temporary refuge among the Abyssinian Community in Jerusalem’ dating from the May 9, 1936 edition of the Daily Herald. What’s all this about then?

The Lion of Judah arrives in Judah by train, May 1936

Haile Selassie is the most obvious name here. The Emperor of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) from 1930 to 1974, he was heir to a dynasty tracing its roots back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and messiah to Rastafarians, who take their name from his – Ras (Head) and Tafari (his original first name).

He had been the head of state of a country that had been targetted by expansionist Italy under Mussolini, keen to avenge the failures of Italian colonialism that Il Duce viewed as an embarrassment. Hats off to A30yoyo on Flickr who found and shared the photos above and below.

Haile Selassie in front of a modernist house, Jerusalem

In 1936, Italian forces had finally completed the takeover of Ethiopia, forcing Selassie into exile. Though his eventual destination was Fairfield House in Bath, England, his first stop on leaving Africa from Djibouti was Jerusalem, then under the rule of the British Mandate and, as Simon Sebag Montfiore notes in his excellent history of the city, quite a tempestuous place to say the least.

H.V. (Henry Vollam) Morton, the author of the piece, and is widely considered one of the finest travel writers ever. In 1936 he was fresh from completing In the Steps of St Paul, the follow-up to his 1934 bestseller In the Steps of the Master, which was his account of visiting Palestine. He was something like Michael Palin combined with Bill Bryson, so when the Daily Herald wanted a piece on the Abyssinian Christians who must have seemed so exotic to 1930s Britain it is natural that Morton wrote the piece. Given the plug for his next article at the end of this, appears to have been having his work serialised for the paper.

And what about the Abyssinian monks, worshipping in a tent on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre? They’re still there, as they have been for millenia, in the ‘kind of African encampment’ that Morton describes in the cutting. Here, at Easter, you can still see them ‘gyrate sadly round the roof in the moonlight looking for the body of Christ.’ Morton signs off noting ‘Those are the strange people among whom the Lion of Judah, as they call their Emperor, will seek refuge to-day.’ Today they remain exotic and fascinating, rather than strange, but still an essential part of life in the Old City.

I’m pretty sure Selassie did not literally seek sanctuary with the monks, as the Ethiopian Royal Family had a house in the city, but his visit was a symbolic one and helped to keep his profile high and question which of the two nations involved in the conflict was the barbarous one in need of civilising. And under five years later he was back as Emperor in Addis Ababa following the defeat of Italian forces.

The Italian stamp on Ethiopia and Eritrea can still be seen to day in modernist Asmara and Addis Ababa’s Piazza area, a tasty word for the city’s bus-boys to yell at passers by as the tour for trade.

Oddly enough this isn’t the first time I’ve found a random clipping inside an old book. You can read about that plea to demolish the Bank of England here. Not bad for £6 with postage. There are finds galore like this on the mighty Abebooks, and you’re buying from booksellers around the world which keeps prices keen. There are quite a few H.V. Morton titles on there, with who-knows-what waiting to be discovered inside.