A Mild Extravagance

I’ve swum in lakes shorter than the Parliament Hill Lido, which measures 61 metres long and 27 metres wide. The lakes are also warmer. Because the lido is unheated, and because it doesn’t contain as much thermal mass, its temperature changes more rapidly with the weather.

23C is where it tops out, which is also when the water just starts feeling warm. It can get very cold; 18C is the coldest I can stand. It‘s late September or October before it gets that low, and by then, the few swimmers remainining are all wearing wetsuits.

Today, the pool temperature is 20C. It’s also sunny with no wind, which isn’t helpful; if the water is going to be cold, I prefer the weather to be cold as well, so my body gets used to it. I pre-emptively squeeze on my goggles and drop into the water.

If you can stand the shock, it’s best to get the beginning over with quickly. I only spend a few seconds dallying before I half-launch, half-lurch into the pool, simultaneously fighting off cardiac arrest while also starting what’s typically my fastest lap by a long distance.

At 23C, I stop feeling cold after 20 metres. At 20C, it can take 250 metres. That’s just four lengths.

The pool is lined with stainless steel, the first of its kind in Britain. It’s pixellated with braille-like dots, so the ribbons of light refracted through the water seem like they’re being played out on a massive low-resolution, high contrast display.

Today, there are fewer than a dozen swimmers. The women wear low polygon swimsuits and gourard-shaded swimcaps; the men all wear the same black Speedo trunks with white piping, the ones we buy when we discover that baggy shorts look silly and cause exceptional drag.

I generate too much friction as I swim. I’ve never watched a video of myself but I know there’s too much splashing. I favour my left side too much, a product of the knotted muscles in my left shoulder, itself a legacy of leaning to my left in front of the computer for the past 14 years.

Over the years, various medical checkups have confirmed that I have unusually good lung capacity and an enlarged left ventricle, which means I can keep running and swimming for longer, even with my poor form. So today, when there are only serious swimmers in the pool, gradually overtaking me on the inside, I chop my way through the water without pause.

Too much sun, and the pool gets crowded. Too cloudy, and the sky becomes boring. The best days have a mix of wind and clouds and sun, so you can see the steel floor ripple with light and then grow dull, over and over again.

It costs £7 for a ‘day swim’ ticket. In the summer, I go several times a month — a mild extravagance since ‘evening swim’ tickets, beginning at 6:45pm, are £3 cheaper.

But the lido is just three minutes walk from the front door of our office. If I walk out at 5:40pm, I can be in the water at 5:50pm, swim 1464 metres by 6:30pm, and be home by 7:10pm.

It feels fresh and secret and serious and luxurious, all at once. I will never live so close to such a beautiful lido ever again in my life.

If the lido is quiet enough, I swim back and forth in the centre of the pool. The water is dark enough that I can barely see the edges to my left and right. Below, there’s steel. Above, the sky.

It’s like swimming in a spaceship. A simulation of swimming generated for homesick travellers.

And then the whistle blows at 6:30pm and I climb out and hop, skip, and jump until I can hear through my left ear again.

The regulars in the changing room started recognising me this month. “It’s nice when it’s quiet,” one said to me. The changing rooms are reality.


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