Yesterday I visited the Seymour Leisure Centre for the first time in ages. It has the ‘Westminster’ problem: all Westminster’s pools are grimy, peeling and run down apart from Marshall Street and all of them have terrible changing rooms including Marshall Street. However, they’re in the Swim London Scheme, you get your 20p back from your locker and actually I have a great deal of affection for all of them. I was pondering this and I came to the conclusion that it’s because I normally go to them when I’m about to do something fun: go to the pub (Seymour, Porchester) shopping (Marshall Street) or take a train to somewhere pretty in Sussex or Kent (Queen Mum’s). If I’m ‘just swimming’ I’ll probably have gone to usual pool (52 Club in the old days, Kentish town now). And I only go to the Oasis when I have to (usually when I’m coming from or going to work). So they’re lovely really even if the Seymour pool is too short, too narrow, really run down and feels like it’s in a forgotten basement. Meanwhile, Seymour Hall, the indoor basketball court is lovely and looks like could have been a pool once and could still be one. Why do the dry sports people get the nice room? Incidentally, I was SURE Jenny Landreth had made this point in her review of this pool but she didn’t. How odd.
On Saturday I encountered the Pond Ladies discussing, and indeed holding in their hands, a review copy of this book . It seems the author had sent a copy to one of the committee members and was hoping to hold her book launch at the Ladies’ pond. Leaving aside the limitations that an al fresco female-only book launch would offer, this a) made me very excited and b) made me realise that I’d be prepared to read it without knowing if it was any good and probably even if somebody told me it wasn’t. There aren’t many books which go into that category (for me, books about the Norfolk Broads are probably the other main area) and I think it must be a mixture of the fanaticism which goes with certain activities and the rarity of existing published materials. If there were loads of books about outdoor swimming, I don’t think we’d bother. But there aren’t. And anyway, it might be brilliant!
In case you were looking for some books for yourself or a swimming friend, Jenny Landreth updated her excellent list last Christmas.
One of the things I’ve noticed at my morning visits to the Oasis (when most swimmers seem to be regulars) is how much interaction there is between lifeguards and swimmers. Some swimmers don’t really do much swimming, just a bit of paddling in the slow lane (in the very warm shallow end) and having a chat. It’s not something you see very often and, while I can’t see myself lifting my head out of the water for long enough to have a conversation, I do find it cheering because, frankly, I think it’s a grim job. Even at an indoor pool, the idea of always being on edge but very rarely actually doing something is that combination of stress and boredom which has characterised my worst ever jobs (but times lots and lots). Add to that an outdoor pool and it’s my worst nightmare – stuck outside in the cold trying to keep warm knowing that at any moment I might have to strip and dive in. So, today’s post salutes the lifeguards. Thanks for being there and I’m glad it’s you not me!
One of the perennial problem with public swimming is What to do about Back Stroke. If you’re swimming in lanes, then you’re a hazard because you can’t see whether you’re catching up with the person in front or about to bump into the poolside. If I’m honest, backstrokers get a pretty hard press from anyone who regularly swims on their front, which isn’t fair really because not everyone can have a personal pool.
Well, reader, last Saturday I was that hazard. I’d forgotten my goggles and rather than just doing a head-out-the-water breast stroke until lower-back pain kicked in, I thought I’d try a bit of back stroke. Now, while I didn’t formally learn my usual stroke, breast stroke, until 2009 (despite swimming it for 25 years), I do remember learning back stroke at scary local authority swimming lessons.. Thirty years later, the two phrases ‘one arm should always be moving through the water’ and ‘if you make a splash as your hand goes in, you’re doing it wrong’ stayed in my head and were helpful things to concentrate on. But crikey, it’s hard! It was pretty quiet in the shallow lane (even at 11am on a Saturday morning) but when I became convinced I was about to bump into a person / tiled wall and turned over, I found I’d only made it about halfway up the length. And I was VERY out of breath at the end of it.
All of which tells me that it’s an excellent workout and not the lazy swimmer’s option at all (although obviously it’s harder for me as it’s using muscles I don’t normally exercise that much). Other swimmers allowing, I’m going to try and fit in a length or two (and possibly work my way up) every time I swim from now on. And I’ll certainly have a new respect for the backstrokers who bump into me in future.
This year has been fairly poor on new swimming places. I’ve pretty much kept to my usual haunts: Kentish Town pool, The oasis, Highgate pond, Clissold Pool and London Fields Lido. In fact, I haven’t been to any new pools in London – and some of that must be to do with having a Swim London card. I have had a few new outdoor swims: beaches in Brittany and Spain, Hathersage pool, Mumbles head and, most notably, the estuary of the River Yar. I’d like to do more, but PhD work has made me not very mobile.
So, my ambitions for 2012: more river swims (I like them best but hardly ever do them). London pools including Tooting and Brockwell Lidos, Marshall Street!! and Richmond Pools in the Park. Swim off the beach at Northumberland. Petersfield Lido. And it seems I’m likely to be going to Malawi and possibly Mozambique later in the year, so not being eaten by a crocodile might be a good ambition.
Happy getting wet in 2012 everyone!
This amazing picture was the never-built plan for the replacement of Endell St Baths. Taken from Camden Local History Society’s flickr stream but not reproduced because all rights reserved – which is a great shame from a local authority.
I’m currently working very part-time funny hours which means that I get to use pools when they’re not very busy. This has had two interesting effects. The first is that I realise that my view of swimming as a very popular sport is probably exaggerated: outside of the pre- and post- work rush hours, most swimming pools are really quite empty. And secondly, I have started to like the Oasis, the central London pool so convenient to use and so annoying in so many ways.
Having previously devoted a post to listing its faults, it’s only fair for me to redress this by addressing its virtues.
1. Although the water is warm, and the location very urban, there is a real sense of joy in lifting your head out of the water into the fresh air – especially when it’s really cold
2. It’s extremely conveniently located for London’s fashionable West End, and also the Universities in which I work and study.
3. It’s in the Swim London scheme.
4. The staff these days are really friendly
5. The showers are warm, powerful and last a long time without your having to keep pressing the button
It seems to me that most of my ire for the pool probably derived from the aggressive swimming habits of the rush hour crowd. Even the grotty changing rooms (which, as Jenny Landreth has pointed out, have no surfaces on which you can lay your stuff) are alright really, and don’t have the brutal air conditioning which spoils the wet changing rooms at Kentish Town. So, well done Oasis. I’ll miss you when I go back to work full time.
Last Thursday I went to the pond before 8.30am, a rare occurence for me (believe me, the run up there was painful). I’ve become accustomed to joining in with conversations where it seems relevant – after all, if you’re standing naked next to three women in an enclosed space and you’ve all just voluntarily submerged yourselves in 9 degree water, there can’t really be many secrets between you. The conversation was big on organisational and committee matters which made me think I might be in the company of POND ROYALTY, the ladies who run the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association. Anyway, I suddenly realised that the question ‘is this your first winter?’ was addressed to me. Rather than say ‘No it’s my third’, I simpered and said that I didn’t normally get there that early and didn’t even become cross when the lady in question started talking about how wonderful it was that all different kinds of people were using the ponds now. I think she meant young people and I think she thought I was younger than I am … but it wasn’t a great way to make me feel welcome, well-intentioned as it was. Never mind. I should feel honoured really.
Swimming is a bit like going to the pub sometimes. The experience is enhanced by seeing familiar faces and the odd casual conversation. Like going to the pub, though, sometimes a friendly conversation suddenly becomes uncomfortable.
Today I was chatting to a lady in the Kentish Town pool who started bemoaning that she had forgotten her flipflops, but at least it was clean here unlike in Stoke Newington where she lived. Excited to have found a fellow N16-NW5 criss-crosser I said that I’d always found the Clissold Pool clean. She said ‘Oh do you think so, I’ve seen sand in the bottom’ then said ‘the problem is the kinds of people who go there’. Oh dear. I said ‘well I can’t really complain about the cleanliness of the water as I voluntarily swim in the Ladies’ pond’ . She said ‘Oh do you, so do I’ and then ensued a conversation about temperatures, all the while my thinking ‘go away you stupid bigot’. If there’s one thing I can’t stand more than people who are brainlessly judgemental, it’s people who are inconsistent. If you have such a problem with sharing your space with ‘the types of people’ (eg you and me) who use public pools, because they get dirty, then how do you feel about sharing it with ducks and other pond life? If you think the Clissold Pool’s not kept clean enough by GLL staff, then what kind of job do you think mother nature’s doing in the pond?
I’m afraid I didn’t challenge her, on the completely cowardly grounds that I didn’t want to waste my energy on a confrontation with someone so obviously stupid. At the end, she said ‘well I’ll be seeing you around, here or in the ponds’. I gave a weak smile rather than saying ‘not if I see you first you brainless, horrible cow’. Sorry.