Why wild swimming in the Serpentine is the ultimate London experience

Why wild swimming in the Serpentine is the ultimate London experience
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Wild swimming' is having a moment. Figures show the number of people swimming in open water is up as much as 80 per cent - with almost half a million people in England now thought to be diving in on the regular.

Converts all say the same thing about the joys of open water swimming – that submerging in to invigorating cold water, out in nature while getting some exercise and a moment away from the pace of London life is beneficial for their mental and physical health.

This weekend marks the Children with Cancer UK Swim Serpentine, the biggest open water swimming event in the country, with over 6,000 people expected to swim either half, one or two miles in the famous Hyde Park lake this Saturday.

As avid swimmer in my youth, I decided to take on the half-mile discipline this year and, like thousands of frazzled Londoners, have discovered the benefits of swimming outdoors.

Here’s an introduction to the popular sport.

The Benefits

According to Sport England, the number of people swimming in open water at least twice a month was up 80 per cent in 2018. And in its most recent Active Lives survey, Sport England found 490,660 people went open water swimming twice a month between November 2017 and 2018 – a massive increase on the 266,500 people recorded in the November 2016 to 2017 survey.

Read more The best places to go wild swimming near London

Sport England’s Director of Insight Lisa O’Keefe tells me: “We know open water swimming is experiencing a surge in popularity. When we ask people to describe their perfect environment to be active, they often describe outdoors locations citing the importance of fresh air and exercise. They report reduced stress and improved mental wellbeing.”

I first signed up to the half-mile Serpentine event this summer, having given open water swimming a go for the first time last year with Olympian Cassie Pattern. This time, I had a coaching session with Colin Hill - Director of this year’s Children With Cancer Swim Serpentine.

Mr Hill, 49, who lives in Ullswater in the Lake District, said there was a “change in the perception of open water swimming” after comedian David Walliams swam the Channel in 2006. “That really inspired people,” he says.

This week, American breast cancer survivor Sarah Thomas became the first person to swim the Channel four times non-stop, dedicating her achievement to fellow survivors – which will no doubt inspire others.

Mr Hill says of the benefits of open water swimming: “People say it is good for your mental and physical health and it is - but I think its popular because it reminds you of being a child. Of jumping in to the sea or a lake and having a lot of fun. It is liberating.”

Where to do it

Mr Hill, who helped organise the London 2012 Olympic Open Water Swimming event in the Serpentine, says there are “plenty” of great places for Londoners to dip their toe in the water.

There is of course the Serpentine Lido - a cordoned-off section of the lake - which is open every day from June to September with entrance fees starting at about £4. And if you really get in to it, the Serpentine Swimming Club is the oldest in Britain - and they swim daily between 6:00 and 9:30am, including their famous - and no doubt freezing - Christmas day race.

Parliament Hill

This 60m unheated pool on Hampstead Heath has the distinction of being the only outdoor pool in the UK with a stainless steel liner, which gives the water an unusual and – in the right light – a faintly glamorous metallic shimmer. It reopened for business on July 18 and tickets are available to pre-book up to week in advance. Sessions last for an hour, and you must stay at least 5m away from swimmers who are not part of your family unit.

Brockwell Lido

Brockwell Lido has long been one of the most popular spots in south London, but is now running at a reduced capacity. Sessions, which allow for 50 minutes of swimming, must be booked in advance via the Fusion Lifestyle app. The pool has been divided up into extra wide lanes and, as it stands, only adults older than 16 are allowed to attend.

Stoke Newington West Reservoir

One for the real hardy types. It's not heated, and there are no lanes or any of that, but there's a tremendous sense of freedom swimming in the open water here. Organisers are strongly urging that only experienced open-water swimmers attend currently, and attendees must book their one-hour time slot in advance. You must arrive ready to swim, too, as the changing rooms are closed.

Denham Lake

This lake is primarily used by the Denham Waterski Club, although a portion of the water is cordoned off for swimmers. Again, strict rules are in place, and capacity has been significantly limited. From Monday to Friday, swimmers must check in at 8.30am to swim from 8.45am to 9.45am. Bookings are released at 8.30am the day before. Check in at 7pm on weekday evenings to enjoy a swim from 7.15pm until 8.15pm. Again, bookings are released at 7pm the day before. On weekends, the sessions are timed for a 8.30am check in, and a swim from 8.45am to 9.45am. Bookings are available from 8.30am the day before. All bookings must be made through the ACTiO app and all swimmers need to be members of NOWCA.

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Oasis Sports Centre

Found in the West End, this pool is a great choice for anyone closer to the city centre. It's outdoor pool is currently open, and bookings must be made using the Better UK app in advance. Sessions last for an hour, with lane swimming only and no backstroke allowed.

Hampstead Heath swimming ponds

The swimming ponds are the highlight of Hampstead Heath. Apart from the Parliament Hill Lido, there are three ponds: one for men, elevated on a hillock; one for women, veiled by oak trees in a corner of the heath, and a mixed pond. Booking slots are available seven days in advance, and must be secured in advance. The pools are no longer free, either, with a charge of £4 for a one-hour session.

Richard Lea-Hair

London Fields

Call it "bracing" if you like, but swimming outdoors is chilly. Not here though: the London Fields Lido is, gloriously, a heated open-air pool – so no excuses. The lido was recently restored, too. Sessions will need to be booked online beforehand, with swimmers encouraged to turn up ready to swim.

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The Serpentine

The Serpentine Lido, slap bang in the middle of London's most famous green space, Hyde Park, is only open to members. Sadly, if you're not a member, you won't be able to join for now, as the Serpentine Swimming Club has currently suspended applications.

Hillingdon Sport and Leisure Complex

Formerly known as the Uxbridge Lido, this is a rather beautiful spot, in all its 1930s, Grade II-listed glory. Both the indoor and outdoor pools are open for business, and slots must be booked in advance using the Better UK app.

Mary Turner

Hampton Pool

Despite perhaps not being as well known as some others on this list, Hampton is well worth a trip. It has now reopened its main pool (lane swimming and family swim sessions only) and the learner pool for families with small children. Bookings must be made in advance on the Hamptom Pool app.

Tooting Bec - temporarily closed

At a smidge over 90m long, Tooting Bec is the largest freshwater open-air pool in the whole of England. Be warned that despite its size, it is still very popular will likely be one of the most in-demand spots once it reopens.

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London Royal Docks

For a rousing outdoor swim, the Docks are hard to beat. The open-water facility at London Royal Docks is currently socially distanced, pre-booked sessions. It's offering a variety of swimming experiences, from dip in the causal area, or a 1500m training session. No changing is currently allowed on-site, and you'll also need to wear an aforementioned NOWCA safety wristband. Bookings can only be made via the ACTiO app.

Charlton

A fully heated 50m pool is the highlight of Charlton Lido, which is in tip-top condition thanks to a £2m refurbishment in 2013. There are eight tennis courts close by, so check whether they are open before you arrive if you intend on using them. Swimming sessions last for an hour, with only lane swimming available. Backstroke swimming is prohibited, and butterfly should be avoided.

Pools on the Park

They are two pools here, but only one outdoors. Unsurprisingly, the outside one is chillier, but is kept at a clement 24C, and is the larger of the two, so is always a good choice for a semi-adventurous swim. Bookings must be made on the LBRUT Sports app in advance, with sessions split between slow, medium and fast lanes, depending on your ability.

Other wild stretches in London include the newly re-opened Beckenham Place Lake, the three Hampstead Heath Ponds, the 90m Tooting Bec Lido - which is the largest freshwater pool in the UK - and City-side open water swimming and venue Royal London Docks to name but a few. Most cost around £5 a person per session.

Mr Hill also suggests popping down to outdoor swimming pools such as the Lidos in London Fields, Charlton and Brockwell and enquiring about their swimming clubs. He says they should be able to 'put people in the right direction' and provide more information about open water swimming clubs nearby.

What you need

Nothing, other than a swimming costume, goggles, and a swimming hat, Mr Hill says. “But I’m old school,” he jokes.

While I would like to be more like Mr Hill, I can’t hack long stretches in cold water without a wetsuit. A quick dip is fine, but long distances – no thanks. With Olympic triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee as their ambassadors, Huub are one of the market leaders. Their team recommending the Axiom wetsuit for beginners. It costs £199 with more information at huubdesign.com.

Swim Serpentine

Those considering taking the plunge can register their interest in the 2020 Children with Cancer Swim Serpentine at swimserpentine.co.uk.

On Saturday, The Swim Serpentine Festival will return for its second year to run alongside the swimming events to showcase inspirational swimming-related speakers, film screenings and more information about the sport. All events are free to participants and the general public.