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.
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.
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.
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.