Yesterday I arrived at Usual Pool to find it closed and was very, very close to giving the swim a miss: it was raining, I felt horrible, time was tight and I had a Times 2 jumbo crossword just waiting to be filled in in my bag. However, I resisted tempatation and walked 8 minutes down the road to my much-loathed Oasis.
On a midweek evening the Oasis is busy with a very different clientele from the early morning and the weekend. I would describe it as more conservative, only what I actually mean is younger, arty, professional. The outdoor pool is two-lanes only at the moment (because of scaffolding on the flats next door as far as I can tell) so after a game attempt in what would have been the medium lane, I retired with grace to the slow one. Lots of overtaking and uturns in the middle of the lane but I did feel pretty good by the end. And, hey, it’s nice to feel like one of the fast swimmers, despite the pool-rage-inducing frustration of being stuck behind someone who doesn’t let you take over at the end of the lane. Grrrr.
Although most lidos won’t be opening for another month or so (annoying since I will be in Petersfield this weekend) I am overjoyed to see that the temperatures at the ponds at Hampstead have gone up to 9 degrees. This is too cold for me to have a proper swim in, but I can certainly do 5 minutes and get all those tingly endorphin feelings back. I shouldn’t speak too soon, or I’ll get another cold or some other such intervention, but this Saturday or Sunday that’s definitely my intention!
The weekend before last, I just managed to miss out on the low season opening at Hathersage, while staying in nearby Bamford. Too late for me, but this pool opened last Friday.
I had Usual Pool to myself this morning and gosh, it was lovely. I’m well aware that pools are not viable if they are not used, but avoiding the stress of worrying about being too fast or too slow or bumping into someone or being bumped into definitely makes for a more pleasurable experience (and I was lucky this morning, I’d forgotten the pool was supposed to be closed until 9am and it just happened to open early).
On Saturday I went to the Oasis, which is my nemesis of pools, although it is nice to be in the open air. Also there are lots of characters in the ladies’ changing rooms. One woman went up to me apropos of nothing and said, pointing, ‘that lady there, she comes all the time and she never brings a towel, just uses the paper from the loos’. Another couple of my sister swimmers spent 10 minutes berating the state of the changing rooms (they aren’t wrong) before saying ‘but I wouldn’t want them to do them up, then they’d just close for six months’ and her companion said ‘oh yes, and they’ll ruin it like they did the Mornington which has no atmosphere anymore and the showers are always too cold’. There’s nothing like the camaraderie arising from what is, if you think about it, something of a surreal and artificial situation.
Yet… swimming is largely a solo activity, I think. Which is why people enter ‘the zone’ while swimming and kick off without noticing you are there (this happened on Saturday morning). And if your pool is busy, then lanes are the only way to get people swimming behind each other at sort-of the same speed (Usual Pool can get away without lanes, as it’s not busy and, as an occupational pool, is mostly used by adults swimming lengths). Outdoor Swimming Friend tells me that pool attendants at her Lunchtime Pool, in the Borough of Merton, won’t put lanes in as a matter of course and, if she requests they they put one in, complain that they will have to remove it later (she suggested that they might prefer not to come to work as they only have to go home again at the end of the day). I’m a librarian myself, and do encounter colleagues occasionally that loathe their facility being ruined by those pesky customers, but you do wonder why people work in customer service environments if they don’t like people.
As a non-Islington resident, I’ve used the Archway Pool, Ironmonger Row and Cally Pool regularly at different times of my life, but I used the Highbury Pool for the first time this week. It’s an extraordinarily well-located pool, minutes from Highbury and Islington tube station which is not only on the fast line to the west end (and Westminster) but also serves as the transport link for most of the surrounding areas (including Stoke Newington, where I wake up a couple of times of week). I was expecting it to be busy, but actually it wasn’t too bad, mostly because it’s a wide pool – 4 lanes had plenty of overtaking room in the middle, which was just as well because the definition of ‘slow’, ‘medium’ and ‘fast’ (the lane on the far right was presumably something like ‘very fast’ but the swimmers were all a blur to me) was uncertain. This is about right for me because I’m still swimming slowly although I think I’m finally getting breast stroke legs right. Very occasionally I do feel like I’m doing a proper streamlined seamless movement instead of just concentrating on my legs and realising that my arms are all stiff, or getting my arms right and not getting my legs in sync. As ever, swimming in a public pool is more painful than Usual Pool, but it’s always comforting to see how few people actually do breast stroke legs. Decoratively, it’s a non-offensive pool with that disposable plasticky tiled feel that 70s pools have (and much better than the 1980s Archway Pool) although I will always have a soft spot for Irongmonger Row.
I’ve been back in the water for 10 days now, but hardly been to Usual Pool. On Monday I was staying at the Hilton Deansgate in Manchester and used their pool. At 20 feet it’s longer than most hotel pools but was very, very narrow – two people swimming lengths was a squeeze and one gent actually went off for a sauna until one of the two of us got out. It wasn’t until *he* was finished that I was able to swim on the side with the floor-windows looking into reception. Most unnerving but the novelty wore off after a bit. The pool was a bit hot, but there’s something really special about being able to go up 2 floors in a lift to the swimming pool. And watching the sunset break through the rain while sitting in the jacuzzi was a very special experience.
Urgh, just when I thought it was safe to go back in the water, I’ve been struck by the worst cold sore I can remember. My immune system, he say no.
So, I thought I’d relate my swimming experiences from a trip I did last year to Scandinavia and Estonia. The main reason for going was a choir tour and they had cleverly booked us into Tallin’s Kalev Spa hotel and water park, which is where I normally go swimming when staying with my father in the city. It’s one of my favourite public pools. Don’t be misled by the term ‘water park’ – it’s a proper swimming pool with so many lanes that it’s pretty much impossible to end up swimming at the wrong speed, and a fantastic size. There’s a play pool which syphons off people who are just there to muck around (although why that doesn’t work at Swiss Cottage, I just don’t know). I had 3 really good swims while I was there and of course the saunas – even just the ones in the changing rooms – are fantastic.
Next we arrived in Helsinki. Unfortunately, the famous 1920s Yrjonkatu swimming hall was closed for refurbishment but the very friendly staff gave me directions to the Helsinki Swimming Stadium which I loved. It was just heated – not so much that clouds of steam rose up, but enough that anyone could do a long session there without their core temperature dropping. I had to get out after 20 minutes because of a thunderstorm, but predictably the sauna was great. I’d go back any time.
In Stockholm, I paid through the nose to go to the gorgeous Sturebadet (but when you’ve spent enough time in Scandinavia, money starts to lose all meaning, especially when you’re in four different currency zones). What can I say? I’m a spa whore and this one is gorgeous (although you wouldn’t know it from the outside as it’s hidden in a modern shopping centre). It was a really hot day when I visited and after lunch, my companion and I decided to get out of the town centre and visit Langholmen beach. And needless to say, still carrying my cozzy, I couldn’t resist a swim in the very, very cold (fresh) water. A free one after my very expensive one earlier in the day. It was stunning. However, I was the only person who, after the initial splash, stayed for a proper swim. I thought Scandinavians were supposed to be rugged! But it was the day of the Stockholm marathon so maybe the rugged ones were all running. I felt so amazing, we celebrated with cocktails at Benny out of Abba’s hotel.
Oh yes, while I’m about it, I subscribe to the BBC World Service One Planet podcast and there was a interview with Kate Rew, author of Wild Swim, on the latest episode dated 4th March. It includes sound effects of Kate diving into the Serpentine while the presenter Mike Williams drinks tea. She’s also asked ‘lakes or rivers?’ and chooses ‘rivers’ for the refreshingly uncompetitive reason that ‘rivers do some of the work for you’. If I ever get well enough to swim again, I *can’t wait* to get into the Serpentine.
I’m still out the pool waiting for my sore throat and bunged up nose to clear up (and realising that a thrice-weekly swim was the only thing between me and lower back pain). So I thought I’d think about the pools of Budapest, *the* city of baths, where I spent 6 months in 1991 (and return fairly often). I can highly recommend the municipal site which, while not comprehensive, has all the information you need in English and some lovely pictures. Be warned that using baths in Budapest can be complicated, and the system varies from pool to pool. But accept that the women working there all think you are a stupid tourist anyway so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t realise you’re supposed to give her your tag, or where you get towels from, or what you’re supposed to do with that weird linen apron (you’ll only get that at a segregated non-swimming spa bath.. mmmmm). Oh yes and swimming caps are compulsory – you’ll get dragged out by an arsey attendant if you try to swim without one, even if you’re bald.
For serious swimming, outdoors (but heated if I remember correctly) The Hajós Alfréd Szportuszoda is a must (check out these amazing pictures from the Olympic Swimming Champion’s memorial Society site and some information in English from Yahoo! Travel). It was the first pool I went to in Hungary (for some reason, I didn’t swim at all in my first 2 visits to the city) and at the time was a bit scary for me, but I’d love to go back now. My regular pool when I was there, because it was cheap and local was the then newly-built – and very pleasant – Csaba Utcai Uszoda (or Varosmajori Uszoda). I can’t find an official site for this so I can’t guarantee it’s still open but it was nice modern little pool in 1991. Another regular haunt – far more expensive, but what an experience! – was the justly celebrated Gellért Pool. Nowadays I tend to divide my time between the Rudas (which looks very grand here but really is used as a swimming pool by locals) and the fabulous Szechényi complex, where you can have a proper open air (if slightly heated) swim followed by a lounge in one of the hot pools (and play floating chess should you really want to). Incidently, if it’s a spa experience, rather than a swim you want, the Király and Rácz Fürdők alternate men’s and women’s days (although I never get it right myself) and the Rudas has a thermal bath as well, although it’s not open to women. Or is that the Rácz?