Wednesday, 29 February 2012

TOOTING LIDO by Jenny Landreth

I was sitting in the sauna at Tooting Lido in the middle of January thinking about death. Swimming in water that’s hovering around the 3 degree mark can do that, and that’s why I was in the sauna, to bring some semblance of feeling back to my post-swim scalding-cold lobster skin. ‘Swim’ is a generous description at this temperature; if there was one word for ‘wade, screech, mad paddle’ I’d use that. I’d just done six widths, about 200m, which is a tiny swim as they go; if you’re a Tooting Lido regular you’ll shrug like ‘so what?’ Regulars try to do that, to be neither impressed nor unimpressed, to remove the competitive element that might otherwise tempt people to push themselves, because guess what, ice water is not really the place for experimenting with your personal boundaries. If you’re not a cold water swimmer, I can tell you that doing 200m in 3 degrees makes me either a goddess or so hard as to be unnatural and either way, I’m not to be messed with.

It wasn’t just the freezing water that bought me to things mortal. This sauna has all the styling of a communal coffin circa 1977; it’s a dark, pine box, hot enough to be on its way to hell, with stepped benches that get hotter the higher you sit. The door handle sometimes falls off and I’ve often joked with fellow swimmers about being locked in there, heating to death (I’m also available for parties). 

Drawing by Darren Hayman

But today I’m sitting here alone, on the top bench, not yet lightly sweating, thinking about Dr Andy. His death had been announced on the lido’s various social media feeds and a more conventional printed note pinned on the board by the winter entrance to the pool, where I’d signed in. Dr Andy was a great big man who’d celebrated his 90th birthday here in autumn last year, the old king of the lido, much loved and respected in the way that clever, dry, humorous kings are. When there were two walking sticks by the steps, you knew that Dr Andy was in the water somewhere. He had his own rules of cold swimming (we all do), like he never did lengths until the water was 10 degrees; I love the way he described the temperature of the water in winter: ‘it’s either cold, or fucking cold’ an observation given more bite by the fact he wasn’t a sweary type. I’d never passed more than a few daily sentences with him, but still felt his loss keenly, so I can only imagine how sad his close friends and family must feel to lose such a man. I was thinking, too, blimey, he must have swum a lot of lengths in his ninety years. I was thinking of how many I’d swum in comparison: a drop in the ocean, even for a swimming obsessive who, like a reverse-witch, can’t pass over a body of water without contemplating whether I could swim it.

Tooting Lido is my home pool, the one I would swim in above all others. Its history is well documented; it’s an iconic pool, over 100 years old; it’s huge, and it’s cold even in the middle of summer. But big and unheated has advantages, not least that even on the sunniest days, when every square inch of ground is covered in bodies, there is often enough room in the 90 metre un-laned pool to get a decent swim in, if you can ignore the milky quality of water + suncream that reduces visibility and tastes like swimming in Impulse. I swim here year round, even on snowy days when I get out acting like I’ve done something majestic.

When you walk in, there laid out before you, is a massive blue slab of water, bigger than any you’ve ever seen, unless you’ve seen a bigger one. So big it reflects the sky, so big it has its own weather system. Tip #1: don’t put your hands in to feel the water temperature. Trust me, it’s cold. There are two choices to change: either privately in one of the little outdoor cubicles, when you can hang your hoodie over knot holes in the wood. (You’ll want to take pics, they look cute, you’re only allowed to do that ‘out of season’.) Or communally, in a concrete bunker where the floor is perennially cold and wet. (You won’t want to take pics in here, it’s a bit grim.)
Photo by hilry_Jennings under creative commons license.

I guarantee that when you get in the water, you’ll do shrieking, pull your stomach in and stretch your arms up, as if making yourself thinner and taller warms the water. It’s un-laned, so requires a little bit of swimming etiquette and vigilance –there have been times when the only two people in the water still manage to crash into each other (sorry bout that). The width of the pool – 30m – is as long as some pools get, and the deep end can look forebodingly distant. The water is fully chlorinated, but doesn’t feel or smell like it, it’s something to do with UV, apparently.

Along each side of the pool are afore-mentioned cubicles, and a shaky wooden structure that offers a bit of cover if it’s raining. There’s a few sun-trap benches that get quickly colonised by wise people who know which way the sun moves. (Yeah, sure, everyone knows which way the sun moves, but not everyone is quick enough to grab a bench.) There’s a big fountain at the shallow end (not architecturally uplifting, but reminiscent of the seaside in the 1950s even if that’s way before your time) and a café that isn’t great (how difficult would it be to serve porridge? I don’t even like porridge, but cold water swimming makes you disproportionately hungry.) There’s a big grassy bit at the back that gets clogged with double buggies and territory-marking blankets on a sunny day, and a paddling pool full of women standing ankle-deep in children pee, staring into space wishing they could be in the big pool. Apple trees have been espaliered along the back fence, a nice touch which echoes the community-minded ethos of the pool. 
Photo by hilry_Jennings under creative commons license.

You can get leaves down your costume, but you don’t pay extra for that. You can get tan lines swimming, and you don’t pay extra for that, either. The train rattles past sometimes, the clouds scuttle, the wind ruffles the water. I recommend it, it’s lovely, and I apologise in advance if I bump into you.

I leave the sauna, that January day, and wince-walk back over the gritted paving slabs to my changing cubicle, my feet sensitive to every tiny pebble, my skin now an attractive mottled red. Sometimes when I come out of the sauna I jump back into the pool for a plunge, like you might blanche a pan of green beans under the tap to stop them cooking. As I said, everyone has their own rules. Today I can’t be bothered, I want to keep a hold of every bit of this heat, wrap it up in my layers, quick. Of course, Dr Andy never came into the sauna, he was proper hard, a phrase he’d have never used to describe himself; lots of the originals still prefer a cold shower after their swim, and I’m now a soft Southern pansy. It’s trying to snow. I’ll be back tomorrow, I think, I love swimming in snow. That’s how my thought process goes: I’m not doing that. I’m doing that. I must never do that again. I’ll do that again tomorrow. Dr Andy kept doing it up until a few days before he died, 90 and a bit. And that, I think, would suit me just fine. 

Jenny Landreth has her own blog Swimming Round London  where she trys out a different London pool each week and writes about it.

Darren Hayman is releasing an instrumental album about Britain's open air swimming pools this summer and on it will be a tune entitled 'Tooting Bec'. 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating hobby (I Never even once contemplated swimming year round) & lovely writing. Great sensory description - though I'm in Canada & I don't believe there is any public pool in which to partake - outside summer - maybe this season will wrest me from the hammock & I'll be adventerous enough to swim prior to the backyard pool reaching 71°F.