March 17, 2014 11:10 AM   Subscribe

So, it's almost spring here in the UK, and after a sunny weekend your thoughts might be turning to doing some Open Water Swimming!

This might help you decide where to go (there are links for some non-London sites here and here), and this might give you some handy safety advice if you're heading into the sea.

If that sounds too cold, snuggle back under the duvet with a nice hot cup of tea and read my favourite blog, LoneSwimmer.
posted by tinkletown (25 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, the aptly named Oasis pool right in the heart of London. I used to go swimming there every other day when I lived in Bloomsbury.

Only a few meters away from the traffic and snarl of New Oxford St. and High Holborn, protected by the elements by the surrounding buildings, there's an outdoor heated pool. It also has a pleasant little cafe, and an enormous roof deck that fills with sunbathers on the occasional sunny day.

It is not part of any private club. It is open to the public.
posted by vacapinta at 12:13 PM on March 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I used to swim there quite a bit when I worked in central London.
posted by tinkletown at 12:16 PM on March 17, 2014

Do people really not swim in lakes in England? Is this actually such abnormal behavior that they need a slightly defensive manifesto? If not, why?
posted by vogon_poet at 12:21 PM on March 17, 2014

Wild Swimming, with doctor Alice Roberts.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:30 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I went swimming on the Norfolk coast a week last Friday and it felt like being crushed while simultaneously set on fire.

It was glorious. I can't wait to go again.
posted by RokkitNite at 12:37 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well you know, England's cold and lakes aren't heated, and there are actually lots of municipal pools around (lots of the lidos and tidal seawater pools I've linked to are actually council-run as well, and very cheap to use). Given the choice people tend to go for heated and clean pools with lifeguards and on-site showers over the dubious delights of a murky canal, and I don't blame them for the most part. This is really about telling people about beautiful places where they can swim safely. We are an island with a lot of beautiful coastline, and people do swim in the sea a lot more than they swim in lakes and rivers here.

The blog is about coldwater swimming, which is a bit different. I find the physiological effects of hypothermia quite interesting, and enjoy reading about his Icemile and cross-channel swims in the same way that I like reading about mountaineering disasters - I'm impressed by his stamina and endurance, but no way am I going to start swimming in 4-degree seawater.
posted by tinkletown at 1:05 PM on March 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Plymouth Hoe swimming pool. I was new in England when I first saw it. I thought, These English are very hardy. But it turns out the tidal pools have been filled in since. Plymouth Hoe got a bit exciting during the storms this February.

Portishead pool I've swum in and yes it was freezing. It's just a lido, not river water or sea water. On a very hot day you bake on the concrete steps and then plunge in the water to freeze for a bit. The pool was refurbished for Extreme Makeover Ty's Great British Adventure in 2009. I guess the local paper couldn't get copyright of the images.

I've been river swimming too, it can be a pleasant, soft - I mean sensuous - experience. No need to make a a great gruelling hike out of it.
posted by glasseyes at 1:35 PM on March 17, 2014

As an immigrant to the UK I have always been amused by the concept of 'wild swimming', which where I grew up was called 'swimming'. A related notion is 'wild camping' which means sleeping in a tent in any location where bacon sandwiches are not available for purchase.
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 2:04 PM on March 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

I have so much respect for people who are into open water swimming. I was a competitive swimmer for most of my young life, then an oceanfront lifeguard for quite a few summers, but I could never get the knack for distance swimming in a non-chlorinated environment. To do any serious yardage, I have to be able to zone out, and I just can't seem to do it when I have to raise my head and reorient frequently. Throw in the inevitable kicks to the head and gulps of seawater that happen in competitive mass swim situations, and it just isn't for me.

As for cold water, I'm weird with that as well. I'm happy as a clam surfing in sub-40 (F) water for hours until I slowly get hypothermic and start to lose motor control, but I'm a complete wimp about jumping into in sub-65 water without a wetsuit on.
posted by gimli at 2:09 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

My favourite local spot is the former Long Bridges bathing place in Oxford – there used to be several outdoor swimming areas around the city but they're all abandoned now.
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 2:10 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

at least that's one way for those folks over there to get cleaned off.
posted by Colonel Panic at 2:12 PM on March 17, 2014

We're increasingly risk-averse, and every time a child drowns it makes the news. So local authorities often ban swimming: for example, River Thames, 2012, swimming banned. Hence the defensiveness. Remember, this is a very, very urban country (England especially).
posted by alasdair at 2:31 PM on March 17, 2014

The ponds on Hampstead Heath are ideal if you like to go swimming with your dog.
posted by colie at 2:52 PM on March 17, 2014

I have lived within ten minutes walk of the mighty Tooting Bec Lido since 1983. I have never been there. I am at a complete loss to explain this circumstance.
posted by Decani at 2:52 PM on March 17, 2014

I was a founder member of The Wild Ones, the outdoor swimming group for Edinburgh - it's our fourth birthday this weekend!

It started out as a group of a dozen friends, and we now have 358 members - though a lot of them are lurkers. There are people swimming at Portobello beach in Edinburgh at 9.30am every Sunday, all year round, as well as loads of other meet-ups and weekends away to beaches and lochs all around the country.

Everyone's welcome and equally valued - there are people of all shapes, sizes, ages and finesses; some people put their heads down for a long swim, others just splash and bob and chat; some wear wetsuits, some just cossies, even when the water temperatures drop to 2 or 3C.

We go to the pub afterwards for coffee and bacon (or haggis!) rolls; there are spin-off Facebook groups for members who are knitters (a sea-themed yarn bomb is pending...!) and for members who want to chat about other sorts of exercise.

There's something special about cheating the elements to be outdoors when everyone else is indoors. And watching snow fall while you swim, or seeing thousands of raindrops hit the water at eye-level is just magical.

Sharing that experience with others, week in, week out, right through the year, brings about some really lovely friendships.

In short, outdoor swimming is one of the best things I've ever done.
posted by penguin pie at 3:32 PM on March 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

My (possibly erroneous) understanding is that US lake swimming has a lot more culture and infrastructure built up around it than British lake swimming.

Hollywood would have us believe that generation upon generation of Anerican kids spent their summers swimming in lakes, either at Summer Camp or on family vacations in a cabin by a lake. Neither of those is a Thing here with the result that lake swimming is itself less of a thing.

(Lakes are totally a thing in Cumbria, but those holidays tend to be sailing/fishing/poetry focused. Swimming isnot the endgame.)
posted by the latin mouse at 4:20 PM on March 17, 2014

Those of us who grew up in The Lakes most certainly spent time swimming in them. Often when the people doing the sailing/fishing/poetry had gone home. Also rivers, the river in our town had a beach-like area where we would spend a lot of our time the summer. There was a council swimming pool, but it cost money, and you couldn't hang out there all day. Also no diving, bombing or heavy petting. I have friends who have recently got into wild swimming, and I couldn't understand the novelty until now. Is it really that uncommon?
posted by Helga-woo at 4:29 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Depends on where you live. I've always swum in the sea, but this kind of thing puts you off jumping into random lakes.
posted by tinkletown at 4:35 PM on March 17, 2014

Hollywood would have us believe that generation upon generation of American kids spent their summers swimming in lakes, either at Summer Camp or on family vacations in a cabin by a lake. Neither of those is a Thing here with the result that lake swimming is itself less of a thing.

It's pretty much true. I've swum in many lakes, ponds, swimming hole, creeks, rivers or reservoirs over the years. I've vacationed in cabins by a lake both as a kid and as an adult, it's pretty normal thing to do, at least in the Northeast.
posted by octothorpe at 5:04 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I couldn't understand the novelty until now. Is it really that uncommon?

Well, if you didn't grow up surrounded by lakes and rivers in the middle of a huge national park, then yes!

In a lot of England, access is difficult, and even if you overcome that, there are plenty of places that just don't have a lot of easily-swimmable water. I grew up in mid-Essex and we would spend days paddling and building dams in the nearest rivers in hot weather, but they were only knee-deep. Summer holidays at the seaside were non-stop swim-fests (my parents would implore me to come out of the North Sea around the time that my lips turned blue from the cold, but I always resisted) but that's not the same as bring able to do it regularly.

Add to that the fear (whether justified or not) of drowning or of contracting water-borne diseases, and you find that many people have come to think of swimming outdoors as being dangerous, or insanitary, or just plain weird.

(In Scotland, the access issues don't exist, but of course it's a good bit chillier. Also: midgies).

In recent years, Kate Rew has founded the Outdoor Swimming Society and generally been a bit of a leading light at trying to counter that perception, as well as providing a voice to try and find a way towards improving access to outdoor swimming areas.

Also, kids who swim outdoors tend to do it when it's hot and they want to cool off (I'm guessing you weren't jumping into the Lakes in February, Helga-woo?). By contrast, a lot of outdoor swimmers love being in the water whatever the temperature - the seasonal fluctuations and the challenge of learning to cope with really cold water are all part of the experience. So people who "get into" outdoor swimming are often not just doing what kids do in the summer - there's a distinct group culture that they're stepping into, which is why they probably make more of a "thing" of it than you'd expect.
posted by penguin pie at 5:10 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Helga-woo, my upbringing was the polar opposite to yours. I grew up with heavily subsidised municipal pools and awesome public transport within the city and inner suburbs. Every weekend my friends and I had the choice of five or six municipal swimming pools - all of which were less than twenty minutes from our houses - and could make our selection based on which pool had the best slides, the best wave machine, the biggest lockers or the hottest lifeguards.

By contrast, there were no deep rivers or lakes anywhere near at hand. (We had rivers, but nothing above your ankles and our much vaunted canals were full of rusty shopping trolleys.) I did still manage to do outdoor swimming a couple of times as a kid, but it involved going right out beyond the motorway into the countryside. This was a place with no buildings and where the buses didn't run. A trip there involved getting up early to make and pack a picnic lunch, riding my bike for hours, swimming during the brief midday period when it was warm enough, drying off, awkwardly changing out in the open and then spending another several hours cycling home.

I have some great memories of those swims, but it wasn't something you could do on a whim. It took serious planning and co-ordination, not least of which was persuading everybody's parents that nobody was going to wind up dead.
posted by the latin mouse at 5:35 PM on March 17, 2014

Ha, yes, and I guess most schools don't have a fell running club, a sailing club and a canoeing club ;) I've swum in lakes in October, but it's pretty chilly by then. Blue-green algae was a big problem when I was a kid, and did limit our Swallows and Amazon's idyll.

I realise that's not possible to the same extent elsewhere, but I guess I thought it was something most people had done at some point, hence my surprise at my friends' excitement at it all. I have been enlightened by this thread. They are all very much fairweather swimmers though, I think my October swims mean I win on hardiness.
posted by Helga-woo at 5:37 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

i miss lake swimming, and i remember fondly river swimming as well.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:29 PM on March 17, 2014

I grew up on the northwest coast of Ireland. As a kid started swimming in the sea around May and I have been surfing in October in shorts and a t-shirt. Still fondly remember myself and a friend taking an impromptu plunge in our underwear in a Welsh mountain pool in November. Also a veteran of several Christmas Day sea swims, including a half-mile sprint over a beach in a hailstorm once, to reach the waterline.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 3:30 AM on March 18, 2014

It has definitely been a bit of a culture shock moving to England from Vermont. Everywhere I wander on the weekends (Up here in T'North) has some nice lakes and reservoirs along with decent slow moving meandering rivers and they're all posted as:




usually also associated with a childs drawing of someone drowning in the deep water or imploring you not to go into the water. These aren't toxic wastelands or old mining lagoons, they are artificially made lakes with nice pebble beaches with a gentle slope down until you would be over your head. I wouldn't worry about swimming in them at all and even in some of the posted areas I wouldn't worry about letting a kid play in the water (suitably supervised of course). The most ridiculous water health and safety overreaction I've seen was at a motorway service station off the M6. The building had a pond surrounding the entrance and you had to walk over a small bridge to get into the building. The area was fenced off with nice low fencing so you could still see the pond but it was also surrounded by sign saying that it was dangerous deep water and there were about 4 life rings surrounding the pond in case someone went in. The entire artificial pond was less than knee deep.

I can easily understand the defensiveness of this club for "wild" swimming in light of 4 life rings surrounding a 10 foot by 30 foot pond that is knee deep and also completely fenced.
posted by koolkat at 4:30 AM on March 18, 2014

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