London’s Wildest Swims
London might not be the first location you think of when deciding on your next wild swim. Surprisingly, however, there are several outdoor lidos, some of them Olympic-sized with brightly coloured changing rooms lining the sides. But if you’re looking to escape the uniform banality of these pools and find some stunning wildlife, there are three spots that will certainly excite your senses. I visited them this week to see whether London can make the cut as a ‘hot’ wild swimming destination.
Hyde Park, Serpentine Lido
It is a muggy, overcast afternoon on the day of my visit. When I arrive, there is no-one else in the lido so the birds and I have it to ourselves. I dodge past goose droppings to reach the edge of the lake and wade in. Pond weed filled with tiny snails catches in my toes. The water is tainted yellow from the algae but its rippling surface reflects the darkening sky. I swim a few lengths to explore the perimeters. The water bubbles away from me, feathers and bronze coloured leaves float past. It is peaceful and remarkably sheltered. Swans glide along the surface. I can see tower blocks in the distance and cars passing silently over the Serpentine Bridge.
The pool itself is simply a cordoned off section of the Serpentine lake. The Serpentine Swimming Club has been open since 1864 and is the oldest in London. Swimmers are safe from pedal boats and even from the pond grasses and Irises which are, themselves, confined by mesh cages. Fortunately, it does not keep out the wildlife and there is a pair of coots nesting precariously on the barrier of floating buoys. I tread water watching as one sizes me up. He seems to decide that I am too big for him and resorts to paddling up and down protectively in front of his nest.
After my swim, I pile on my jumpers, grab a coffee and go for a walk to warm up. Cold water swimming always makes me feel free and it is a delight to wander around.
Hyde Park is a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation meaning that there are strict laws governing how it should be cared for. Unfortunately, these are not policed very effectively and I spotted a bloke fishing about four metres from the sign prohibiting it. There were also plenty of people feeding the squirrels and waterfowl although, as the signposts point out, this can attract ‘unnaturally high numbers’ and cause ‘extensive damage’ to tree bark and plants.
Despite this, there are plenty of signs that the wildlife is hanging on. Hyde Park is home to a range of birds, bats and lichen, not to mention plants and trees. These range from watery weeping willows and silver birches to the more unusual varieties of acer such as the silver maple. Butterflies flutter happily through the wild flower meadow areas and Canada geese and swans shield their fluffy babies. The resident heron stands calmly by the water as families point excitedly. In contrast, the parakeets squawk as they scrabble over the birdfeeders. It is no surprise that researchers are concerned about their intimidation of other birds away from food sources. Although they are not native, these bright green birds certainly make the park more vibrant. If the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is not yet concerned about their impact, then I will feel free to enjoy them.
The lido is set up perfectly with changing rooms, lockers, life guards, a separate paddling pool and even a lakeside shower (although this water was colder than the lake when I visited). But the experience is more similar to swimming in a pond than a swimming pool. Anyone who turns their nose up at the occasional spider floating in an outdoor lido, will not be impressed. But it is easy to ignore the distant hum of traffic and, for those wild at heart, this lido guarantees the opportunity to feel closer to wildlife and experience central London from a whole new perspective.
£4.10 after 4pm, £4.80 before. http://serpentineswimmingclub.com/
Of Soil and Water: King’s Cross Pond Club
King’s Cross Pond Club is a two year long, interactive art exhibition commissioned by King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership. The idea is to create a self-sustaining ecosystem in and around a pool so that the public can swim whilst interacting with their environment. The pool has three sections: a swimming part, a rejuvenation part and a filtration part. In the filtration part, the reeds and oxygenators filter the water to ensure it is as clear as a chlorinated pool. In this delicate ecosystem only 163 swimmers are allowed in per day in order to give the plants a chance to filter the water. The pond is surrounded by grassy slopes and plenty of flowers, from poppies and daisies to nasturtiums arranged into meadow borders. At one end is a café and viewing platform.
The pool itself is only about 5 metres long and is surrounded by tower blocks and building sites. I can hear the trains screeching out of the nearby stations and planes groaning overhead. For such an urban location, the site has a stunning array of wildlife and this is only increasing. The pond lilies support blue damselflies and small cabbage white butterflies. I even saw a wagtail dipping for flies. As soon as the pool is vacated, the seagulls descend for their bath.
It is definitely a trendy venue. The ‘wild’ garden makes an uncomfortable partnership with this developing, urbanised area of central London. It feels disingenuous, like a very controlled enclave of wilderness in the city. It allows Londoners a half-concealed glance into the practice of wild swimming without really experiencing its true delight or danger; the staff members admit to me that they periodically poke a stick in the pond to knock snails off the edge for visitors. I am one of only two that brave the 21 degree water to swim. Most visitors lounge around, sunbathing and reading. Even the kids seem subdued. It raises the question of whether the pond is enjoyed any differently to your average swimming pool. To me, it feels like the latest trend, enjoyed by health kickers and hipsters alike. Since there is such an air of performance to the pond, it is fitting that it is actually an art exhibition rather than a permanent wild swimming experience. And, in this sense, it is a wonderfully involving work of art.
But perhaps I am too cynical. This may be the taste of the wild that a few Londoners need in order to reach out and embrace it, snails and all. After all, the pond has only been open for one year and in this time, the plant numbers have rocketed. Let me reserve judgement until next year on whether this pond can truly be crowned an excellent wild swimming experience.
Adult price: £5, card only. Pre-booking recommended due to limited number of entrances.
Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, Hampstead Heath
In contrast to King’s Cross Pond, the Hampstead Heath Ladies’ Pond is basic, comfortable and wild.
We arrive at Hampstead Heath station on a sunny afternoon and it takes us almost an hour of wandering to find the ponds. Luckily, I have brought along my bird expert and we spend the time happily identifying birdsong. Along the way, we meet another wanderer heading for the same place and continue on together. Eventually, after much map-checking and consulting strangers, we turn down a tree-lined track leading to the pool. By now, we are suitably sweaty for a cold swim.
And cold it is. The pond is at least 4 metres deep which makes it significantly colder than the others and slightly unnerving. One has to cross a wooden decking platform to reach the pond-side. Since access to the banks is forbidden, you either have the option to dive in, spluttering and speechless from the stabbing shock of the cold, or to climb tentatively down the steep ladder. The edges of the pond are festooned with lily pads which seem beautiful from a distance although close-up they swirl about your wrists and threaten to drag you down. Usually, I prefer wild swimming without a wetsuit; the feel of pond weed brushing your legs only adds to the feeling of connectedness with nature. But this is one of the few that I would consider taking a wetsuit to. After jumping gleefully into the pond a couple of times and swimming two laps, I was so cold that my breathing became heavier and I could sense hypothermia looming.
But, despite this, the thrill of free-falling towards icy water and floating alongside ducklings is exhilarating. The pond has a very different atmosphere to the mixed gender pond. There is less judgement and women of all shapes and sizes swim here. It feels markedly calmer. There is no photography and so no-one is attempting to impress. People swim or natter on the decking. An old woman gains diving tips from a life-guard. The other life-guard feeds the ducklings. The majority of women swim breast stroke, a typically feminine stroke but also the ideal one for wild swimming since it does not alarm the wildlife as much as a splashy front crawl.
The ponds were formed from damning Hampstead Brook in the 1700s. The River Fleet still runs below providing fresh water but the ponds have a deliciously dirty, make-do-and-mend feel to them. The barrier at the edge of the pond has been fashioned from straw and green plastic bottles. The changing room is simply a large shed with cold showers. The whole area is basic and understated. But that is what makes it magical.
£2 suggested donation. http://www.klpa.org.uk/
All three of the sites mentioned are clean enough to be suitable for wild swimming. None of them are fast flowing although some are deep. Each one has qualified life-guards. However, the waters are very cold and therefore can be dangerous. If this is your first time wild swimming, I recommend you follow this advice.
Only swim in the summer months unless experienced.
Be aware that jumping into cold water is not advisable if you have a heart condition. For everyone, it is better to acclimatise gradually on your first entry.
Do not stay in longer than 20-30 minutes at a time or you may be at risk of hypothermia.
Also note that submerging your head will make you lose heat faster.
Pat yourself dry with a towel. Rubbing will make you lose heat faster.
Bring hot drinks and layers for after your swim, no matter how warm the day.