Urban Swimways London Calling

May 16, 2017

Urban Swimways London Calling


By Garrett Martin

HAP columnist, Garrett Martin, is a River Hugger and lifelong swimmer. He writes a column about swimming in cities around the world.

After checking out our neighboring cold-weather counterparts (San Fran, Seattle), I decided to see what’s happening yonder across the Atlantic. Of course those cities have the benefit of having been around for about 1,000 more years than us, but maybe just maybe we can learn something from how they use their rivers and lakes for more than just scenic cruises and famous bridges. First stop: London.


I suppose it should come as no surprise that such a water-soaked island like the UK would host a long and storied culture of swimming. Lakes, streams, rivers, pools, the sea—you name it, people over there are jumping in year-round. It doesn’t seem to matter that the water is F-ing freezing either! Long distance swims officially took notice when in 1875 someone named Matthew Webb decided to swim to France. Thus the English Channel Swim was born—the Everest and ancestor of all marathon swims.


But what about the opportunities for England’s city-dwellers, 8.6 million strong in the megalopolis of London? Has any of England’s aquatic culture worked its way into the fabric of its capitol? To find out, it seemed best to interview a true expert. I discovered one could do no better than Sally Goble, a Londoner who has successfully swum the English Channel and has written frequently about her love of swimming and her city’s many opportunities for immersion. Here’s my interview with her.


How long have you been swimming in London?

I moved to London around 20 years ago and it was this move that made me start swimming regularly - at the age of around 30. I started swimming on my own in a public session at my local municipal baths, building up my swimming stamina, then I joined a masters club, from there I started to get interested in open water swimming. 


You’ve written quite a bit about swimming.  Can you list some of the pieces you’ve written and where they were published?

From 2005-2011 I had my own swimming blog here, which charted my English Channel swim and beyond:  The odd guest blog pops up here and there:  I write fairly regularly for the Guardian’s swimming blog:  (When can the Oregonian get a swimming blog??) And I’ve just started a new swimming blog, which is very exciting, on Medium:


Do you have a preference between open water swimming or pool swimming?

Actually, I love them both for completely different reasons. I love the democracy of swimming in pools - being up close and personal with friends or strangers or my club mates. There is something great as well about swimming with a club. I love the architecture and ethos of public baths. But of course I love open water as well. I love the freedom - and the challenges - of open water.




Is there a special relationship between the English and open water swimming or do you think this is a more universal human trait?

I think it's universal. Although the UK is an island nation connected to the sea in a meaningful way, I’m not sure that’s true in landlocked London! I still think sea swimming is a minority interest in this country. Probably a hundred years ago it was more true when people thought the sea was a remedy for illnesses and we were less afraid of being cold than we are now as a nation! Of course the rise in popularity of triathlon as a sport has made more people tolerate swimming outdoors - but I don’t think it’s popular for its own sake yet. And I think almost everyone thinks that you can’t swim outdoors without a wetsuit - which saddens me. 


Where are the current open water swimming opportunities within the London urban area?

They are limited. The best known is the Serpentine Swimming Club which is based in a lake in Hyde Park in central London. The ‘Serps’ have been going strong for over a hundred years and have an amazing pedigree. In the part of town I live there is Hampstead Heath Ponds (three swimming ponds in a big, wild park - one is only for ladies, one is only for men, and one is 'mixed'!) they are lovely but quite small. They all have their own unique character. The ladies pond is small and intimate and secluded - you can’t see it from the park at all - it’s surrounded by trees and has a grassy meadow to sunbathe. The men’s pond is big and open and has a springboard (that I’m really jealous of!). 


A couple years ago a club started up to swim in the London docks. Very few people swim in the Thames in central London - it's fast flowing, big and full of boat traffic. We also have a long canal that winds through London - but it's filthy, sadly, and full of rusty old mopeds and shopping trolleys. 


Regarding the Serpentine, what sorts of facilities such as changing rooms or beaches are there for swimmers?

The club has a changing hut - which is very basic - looks a bit like a garden shed. That's it. There is a cold shower on the lakeside for hosing yourself down - you have to be pretty brave to use it in the winter!


Are there any organizations or groups devoted specifically to the promotion of open water swimming in London?

The Serpentine swimming club is the main one. There are also three unheated lidos in London - Brockwell lido, Tooting Bec lido, and Parliament Hill lido. (A ‘Lido’ is a very romantic term for ‘outdoor swimming pool’.  Imagine it: ‘Grant Park Lido’!) They are open all year round and unheated and outdoors. They all also have very thriving communities of outdoor swimmers: many people from these pools also love open water swimming. 


Are there any regularly scheduled open water swims or races in London?

A couple years ago a big charity swim was launched in the Serpentine - it happens each September (a mile long)  There is a London Docks 10k swim which has been going a couple of years.  And a reservoir in north London (West reservoir) has started a series of summer races, run by a local tri club


Are there any future plans for increasing or enhancing London’s open water swimming opportunities?

Plans are underway for a floating lido on the Thames which would be amazing - find out more about it here:  We also had an amazing new 'wild swimming pond' created by property developers working with an architect and artist hand in hand to create an amazing and special oasis in the very heart of Kings Cross. Sadly it closed down after a year even though it was beautiful and very popular. I'd love to see some more of these sort of spaces. My personal fantasy is the cleaning up of the canal and then I'd be able to commute to work by swimming. But the chances of that happening are around a million to one!



How do you think other cities—especially those in less warm climates—can learn from London’s urban swimways?

Whether the outdoor swimming opportunities are ‘wild’ or open or just outdoor, heated and unheated lidos - there is something amazing about swimming outdoors. Our heated lidos in London are popular and almost all of them are heated and open all year round. Other countries could definitely learn from this. I have no idea why lidos in the US are only open in the summer - that makes absolutely no sense to me. Also - why do we heat them in the summer when there is little need for it and close them in the winter? Madness. Heat them in the winter so they are used and then leave them heated by the sun in the summer!


Amen to that! One last question:  What other cities offer the best examples for London and elsewhere?

Berlin I think - there are many amazing lakes in the middle of the city, although I’ve not swum in them. And Amsterdam where the canals are clean enough to swim in. Zurich has amazingly clean water both in the lake and its rivers, and there are amazing facilities to make swimming in the lakes and rivers a pleasure not just an earnest endeavor done by slightly eccentric people. I absolutely loved swimming in Oslo when I was there - it’s right on the Oslo Fjord so its geography makes it swimmable. 


Many thanks, Sally!


All the best—happy swimming!

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