40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

Winter Swimming in England

on February 17, 2019

Thanks to Zoe (pictured at right alongside the Dart) for offering to report on swim conditions from her recent trip. With its year-round outdoor swim culture, England is high on my list of places to covet.

photo: Zoe feeling good after her Boxing Day swim in the River Dart.

Hannah’s suggestion that I visit some outdoor “lidos” during my Christmastime trip to England inspired me to seek out swimming during my vacation. While I didn’t end up swimming in an outdoor lido per se, I had two great swimming experiences.

Lido pronounced “lai-do” is British for swimming pool. Before my arrival in London (from New York), I did some research on winter outdoor lidos in the UK at the Outdoor Swimming Society’s website. A London-based friend directed me to an article, published in The Guardian newspaper in July 2015, on a swimmer’s journey over one weekend across London’s top 10 outdoor pools and ponds. I was fascinated to learn about the vibrant year-round outdoor swim culture in the UK, that also incorporates swimming in ponds and a lake London’s public parks.

In London, I headed to Hyde Park and walked alongside the Serpentine Lake that bisects the park while admiring the rich variety of waterfowl and other birds that inhabit it. Heading west, I arrived at the Serpentine Lido, the area of the lake roped off for the Serpentine Swim Club. The year-round open air swim club is the oldest swimming club in Great Britain. Members swim in the “lido” area between 6:00 and 9:30 every morning and also during its famous Christmas Day race. While I had arrived too late to see any people swimming, it was fun to see the lido and imagine the delights of swimming in this lovely public park.

photo: Serpentine Lake Lido, Hyde Park, London

Serpentine Lake Lido, Hyde Park, London

Hampstead Heath, a public park on a large ancient heath (an open area dominated by low-growing shrubland) in one of the highest points in London, is also well-known for its outdoor swimming. It includes one outdoor swimming pool and three bathing ponds; its Ladies’ Pond and Men’s Ponds are the UK’s only lifeguarded open water swimming facilities open to the public every day of the year. While I was attracted to the idea of swimming in outdoor pond solely for women, the cold water and my unfamiliarity of the park and the pond made me decide against it as the place for my first swim in England.

photo: light-filled 3-lane pool

The restored Art Deco pool at the Marshall Street Leisure Center in the West End of London.

After some online research, I selected as my swim venue the airy and light-filled 30-meter restored Art Deco indoor pool at the Marshall Street Leisure Centre & Spa, in the City of Westminster, in the West End of London. The location and open swim hours worked well with my schedule so I dropped in on a Friday afternoon after a visit to the National Portrait Gallery. The front desk associate was helpful and friendly, and, noting my accent, asked if I was American. I paid about $17.60 to use the pool and spa facilities, a rate that may have been discounted from the official rate for day use. The pool’s six lanes were divided into three sections: slow, medium, and fast. The medium lane turned out to be suitable for my approximately 20-minute swim, a combination of breaststroke, front crawl, and backstroke that seemed a reasonable workout, given that I was out of practice for lap swimming. Sharing the pool with about eight swimmers, my swim was pleasantly uncrowded. It was fun, as a visitor, to be able to use a gym and pool frequented by locals, and I felt grateful that I was allowed to do so. The swim and quick trip to the steam room afterward were welcome diversions from my sightseeing and made me feel more relaxed and open for the rest of my day’s tourist activities.

On Saturday, I boarded the train to Cambridge where I met my sister, Eve, who lives in and runs an interior design firm in the city. The next day, with her partner and son, we drove to Dartmouth, in Devon on the southwest of coast of England, where we met her daughter and eight other people with whom we would spend the next four days over the holiday in a large rented house up a hill above the River Dart. The Dart is an estuary that rises high to the moorlands of Dartmoor and releases into the English Channel at Dartmouth. The sparkling turquoise blue color of the Dart and the area’s mild climate that is hospitable to palm trees made Dartmouth seem almost tropical, amid the intermittent fog and drizzling rain.

photo: palm trees

A public park with palm trees in Dartmouth, England.

photo: riverside houses

Dartmouth on the River Dart in Devon in the southwest of England.

Swimming, it turns out, is a Christmas Day tradition in the United Kingdom, so on the holiday, I followed my fellow houseguest Tristan to the beach and watched him peel down to his trunks and swim far out toward the mouth of the turquoise river. Tristan told me that he always likes to swim when he’s on vacation. I promised myself that I would go for a swim the next day, which was Boxing Day in the UK. After breakfast the next morning, Tristan, another fellow houseguest Jon, and I set out downhill for the beach, accompanied by three others from our group. With the tide receding, we waded over a rocky bottom to deeper water with a soft sandy bottom, and then, screaming and yelling, we plunged in, while our companions cheered us on from a high point above the water. The river water was quite cold but not icy, and the outside temperature was about 50 Fahrenheit. I played with my fantasy of Dartmouth and England as a tropical paradise as I swam front and backstrokes and tasted the salty water, which Tristan noted was diluted with the onrushing freshwater draining down from the hillside into the river. We stayed in for just a few minutes and then ran out. After a wonderfully warm shower at the house, I was ready for an afternoon walk with my family members and newfound friends, who had generously shared this lovely part of the country and swimming in it, with me.

photo: Tristan swimming in the Dart on Christmas Day.

Tristan swimming in the Dart on Christmas Day.

Swimming, I learned, is an exceptional way to immerse myself in a culture and make a connection with people and a place. I returned from my trip energized and inspired, and excited for more swimming adventures in the new year.


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