I had my last swim at Usual Pool this evening. Typically, my last few swims there have been great for precisely the thing I couldn’t get from a public pool: lane-free space. Last week I even got to swim in circles. There’s something very relaxing about the 52 Club. In fact, I am certain that I overcame a lot of my dread of swimming (which I nevertheless did for years) because it was such a comforting place to be. Anyway, lots of endorphins and a sauna for my swansong. From next week it’s hampstead heath, swim london or pay as I go in a public pool. Gulp.
Among cold water swimmers there is a widespread belief that it boosts your immune system. All the outdoor swimmers I know are convinced of it (Outdoor Swimming friend had her first bug in 2 years this autumn, which she blames on the fact that a broken metatarsal has kept her out the water). Yet my non-swimming friends tend to think the opposite – every cold to which I succumb is blamed on my chilly dips (there’s a general scepticism based on the fact that I’m famous for Always Being Cold). A recent medical publication suggested that the evidence of increased white blood cell counts after cold water exposure isn’t conclusive, but also that there’s no connection between exposure to cold and susceptibility to infection. I’m sceptical about ‘cures’ which sound like wishful thinking, intuition and old wives tales. However, I am prepared to believe that whether it’s the amazing rush of good feeling, the increase in circulation, something to do with white blood cells, the placebo effect, associated lifestyle choices or a combination of all five, people who swim in cold water are generally healthier. Last autumn and winter my succession of colds and other bugs happened when I hadn’t been keeping up the cold swims (and were no mystery given my tendency to overcommit and my age). And today? I’m writing this from home having acquired my first bug since last spring, following my first week this autumn without a cold swim.
Since I’ve moved next to Parliament Hill Lido, I’ve had a big academic deadline which hasn’t given me time to get to Hampstead Ponds. What surprises me is how different early Saturday swimmers at the different venues. Perhaps it’s because it is all-female or perhaps something to do with it’s quite extraordinary year-round beauty, the Ladies’ bathing pond seems to attract, shall we say, individuals. Typical are women of a certain age (no disrespect intended, I’m approaching that age myself) who aren’t universally friendly but will start to talk to you (and advise you and tell you off) at the drop of a swimming cap. Swimming is non-competitive with heads out the water and much chat is heard. Most commonly heard phrase is ‘isn’t it beautiful’ (normally, bravely, just after hitting the water and preceded by a muffled squeal).
The Lido is much more serious. Swimmers are of course male as well as female, cover a greater mixture of ages and have a heads-down, length-bagging front crawl attitude. Conversation is very rare. It can be a little intimidating to someone who just wants to have a quick dip before going to the library, but one of the top tips of cold water swimming is to enjoy the ‘grand tranquility’ so I try to swim on my own terms. And today there was a nice woman impressively having a hot shower after 12 degree water (my skin would burst!) who made a comment very much of the Pond Lady variety ‘Certainly wakes you up!’.
When I first started going to usual pool I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to swim anywhere else. It was cheap, very close to where I lived at the time (which was the then reason I became a member, although this changed later), quiet and the lack of lanes were a bonus rather than a drag – my own ‘lane’ literally belonged to me. However, since then, I’ve changed job location 5 times and moved house twice, and when my membership expires at the end of this month, I won’t renew it. It’s not inconvenient – it’s right in the middle of town, after all – but the main time I’m likely to be there these days is on a Saturday when its opening hours are a tiny subset of the university library’s opening hours. And the acquisition of a Swim London card means I can swim at The Oasis which is very nearby and open later.
I have a lot of problems with the latter and in fact am not totally convinced the ladies’ changing rooms aren’t cursed, because they’re always horrible no matter how often they’re done up. While I knew it made financial sense to give up my Usual Pool pass, it was only today that I realised that I’ll be using better pools from now on. My New Usual Pool, which I insist on calling Prince of Wales Road, although it really hasn’t been called that for years (and the entrance is on Grafton Road), opened earlier this year and I like it more and more each time I come. Of course it’s clean and shiny, which is nice, and they’ve restored the Old Bits beautifully, but the thing I was really dreading, swimming in an all-lane environment with The General Public of All Ages and Speeds (old Usual Pool is an occupational sports club), is fine. The Willes pool, which is the largest, is divided up into 5 lanes, including two slow and two medium (sorry crawl people). It can be tight – I’ve kicked and been kicked by people in the next lane – but I haven’t been stuck behind someone on any of my 5 visits so far. And there are two other pools! Time, local authority cuts and its discovery by a new generation of Annoying People allowing, I’m very happy with my new usual.
It feels like the right time to assess my experiment in learning breast stroke. Following outdoor swimming friend’s observation that I do the legs wrong, I started out trying to teach myself (and getting the direction of my legs all wrong) and then had a set of swimming lessons and now know how to do it properly. However, I don’t really like it that way. Pushing my legs out rather than back feels counterintuitive and slows me down, although I’m aware that it’s a more strenuous workout.
I’m not at all sorry for having had the lessons though. I now know what is powering me through the water – and it is my legs, not my arms, as people tend to assume of people doing Wrong Legs- and feel confident that as long as I’m relaxed and doing the arms properly that I’m not damaging myself. I feel synchronised and streamlined and, while I’ll never be as fast as someone doing crawl, can move through the water pretty quickly. So, I’m mostly doing an improved version of Old Legs with a few lengths or half lengths of Proper Breast Stroke (which can be hard in a proper public pool as changing your speed without changing lanes can be really annoying for other swimmers). And I don’t feel bad because even my swimming teacher said the most important thing is to enjoy being in the water. Of course it’s another thing to add to the list of things I Don’t Do Quite Right, but luckily I’m not in a competition. I would recommend lessons, despite not enjoying them at the time, but I might give it a few months before I start to learn front crawl…
Aren’t hotel pools fun when you’re staying there? No need to worry about getting dressed to get undressed, carrying your bus pass, walking home with wet hair…
When I booked into the Holiday Inn, Midtown, New York, I was attracted by the outdoor swimming pool and was most disappointed to discover that it closed after labor day, a fortnight before I was going to get there. However, due to an extra-hot September it was open from 10 until 5 after all. I must admit I didn’t use it as much as I wanted to for a variety of reasons (including an expensive hairstyle which collapsed anyway after half an hour because of the humiddiddy), but the short dip I did have, in lovely fresh cold water, on a sweltering New York afternoon, surrounded by skyscrapers, was one I’ll remember for a long time. And I’d book back there again even if the carpets were a bit horrid.
In Toronto, I had a proper swim at the Novotel, which was a lovely hotel. The pool was a bit small of course, but once bf and I intimidated another couple out of the pool we had it to ourselves. And even he got bored with ‘resistance walking’ and went into the jacuzzi meaning I could swim in circles, which is how I like it best.
Sadly, the swim I really did think I was going to get, in the Rideaux lakes, didn’t happen because the weather was so bad we stayed in Kingston. I did plot a way I might have a dip in Lake Ontario in the rain, but it didn’t quite happen.
Yesterday I arrived off a plane from Toronto (for more of which, a later post) at 8am, went to bed and got up at 2pm. I really, really, really did not want to go swimming. However, secretly hoping I’d have missed the last entrance, I set out at 4.30 for Kentish Town baths and had a really lovely swim. It was quiet – in a way that Swiss Cottage and the Oasis never are at 5pm on a Saturday – which was very pleasant. Not having swum for 5 days, it took a long time for pleasure to kick in, but when it did, it was a marvellous tonic for jet lag.
They’ve done a nice refurbishment job at the Kentish Town baths. The changing rooms are much better than they were and the water is just the right temperature if you’re getting some exercise, although a bit chilly for a wallow. This was my third visit and I don’t really have any gripes. The showers are locked cubicles which has been fine so far, but only four of them might prove a bit tight, especially in half term (I remember with shame how I used to monopolise the communal showers at the old Swiss Cottage when I was 12, and that was with a queue of glowering, naked older women in my sightline – imagine if I couldn’t see them!). And of course, there are the usual parade of North London characters. On my first visit a woman walked in and said, to no-one in particular, but with impressive emphasis ‘I can’t believe it, no air conditioning three days in a row!’. Actually, I thought the advantage of having separate pool and gym changing is that there’s no need to keep the changing rooms nice and cold for the gym users.. but it’s nice to see familiar uninhibited grumpiness. Reminds me I’m back home.