Loving London’s lidos in winter

The Oasis, Covent Garden with my swimming expert pal, Kate.

Lido love is a summer romance for most people in London. A fling with urban adventure when the heat is on. Then you have the die hards who swim all year round in ten degrees of heart stopping H20, because the majority of the lidos, which hark back to Victorian times, are minimally heated. But thankfully there are exceptions for water wimps like me who fall between these two stools and for whom breaking the ice is never nice. Whose hearts soar at the sight of beckoning blue tiles and shimmering waters, who love to swim outdoors, the elements always assured to elevate the spirits.  And, most importantly, who crave Celcius readings over the 25 degree mark, no matter what the season. And for those of us who love to travel, finding this on a winter city break turns the fling into a lifelong affair.

I live in London, but decided to create a winter London lido crawl for me and a few out of town girlfriends, and likeminded warm water wanderlusters. Given that I was sharing my London lido love with women, however, I decided to throw Hampstead Ladies’ Pond into the mix. Not strictly lido, and strictly not heated, this spring fed lake has been a swimming haven for women for centuries, concealed behind trees from male onlookers. It is another world, and somewhere I have had summer flings with for the last thirty years. Open all year, the water temperature averages at 13 degrees in autumn, so wetsuits were packed for this one.

We aimed to do four swims in the day, the heated lidos in London being Charlton (50m) near Greenwich, The Oasis (27m) near Covent Garden, London Fields (50m) in Hackney, finishing with our polar plunge in Hampstead. But due to autumn opening times and travel logistics, we gave Charlton a miss this time. But, as it is actually my local and much loved lido, I recommend it hand on heart. All of these lidos are managed by Better Leisure Centres, cost between £4.80 – £6 to get in, and have excellent facilities, hot showers and good lane swimming.

The Oasis Covent Garden
The Oasis Covent Garden

Meeting in central London at the Oasis, just five minutes’ walk from Holborn tube was our starting point. In the heart of the West End most Londoners don’t even know about this open air oasis tucked behind theatre land. Sadly there is no café here anymore, so bring snacks. Or the Pain Quotidienne next door is a great spot for coffee and cakes afterwards. As is the Hoxton Hotel, by the way, if you want to stay in one of the coolest hotels in London, or just pop in for a full breakfast after an athletic swim.  I wish. Back to snacks, I was in show off mood, with my home made energy bars, which went down a treat. See the fool proof, no bake recipe here.

Using my brilliant, but brilliant City Mapper app, we connected with the nearby 55 bus on Bloomsbury way (Museum Street stop) which took us almost directly to London Fields lido, another blue haven in the middle of one of London’s many green field areas, London Fields Park. Sitting upstairs on one of London’s stunning new Route Master buses, like kids on a school trip, the app also showed how many stops to travel and then gave me a friendly little ding just in time for me to do the same to alert the driver that we wanted to get off. Five minutes’ stroll through elegant Victorian streets and there it was, centre stage in the park. Our next lido love. London Fields. Busier than the Oasis, with the beautiful burghers of Hackney doing some very committed laps and limbers. After our acceptable 1 km swim, we soaked up the late seasonal sun on seats around the pool, before hitting the coffee shop, with falafel wraps and other feisty fodder on offer.

Kate chilling post swim at London Fields lido
Kate chilling post swim at London Fields lido

And so to Hampstead Heath, just in time to catch the pond closing at 4.45pm (after the end of October it closes at 2.30pm until the end of March, when the days stretch out again). Citymapper guided us to Gospel Oak station and from there it was a 20 minutes’ walk over Hampstead Heath, walking straight past Parliament Hill lido in fact, which isn’t heated and only open in the mornings in winter.

Note the Ladies’ Pond is not marked on Google Maps but the mens’ one is, just get there and ask someone. Hidden behind trees, this really is an urban paradise, albeit a perishing one. It has devoted lifeguards, who checked that we had cold water experience. She didn’t seem impressed that we had spent the day in warm lidos, and was even less impressed by the fact that we had wetsuits. “We advise against them, because you can’t read your body properly, or how cold you are getting”.  I wasn’t going to dare to disagree, and slowly submerged myself into the soft water, glad that I had packed a rash vest and enough dry swimsuits. Taking my slow intakes of breath, as instructed by the same lifeguard, I soon adjusted to the temperature, managed one lap of honour making it as far as the ducks who dipped in and out among the willows on the far side. And then straight to the hot showers, beaming from ear to ear. And sort of glad that I had left the wetsuit dry, I must admit.

Catherine post swim at Hampstead Ladies Pond. Photos not usually allowed, but they turned a blind eye as we were the last ones to leave. Thanks ladies.
Catherine post swim at Hampstead Ladies Pond. Photos not usually allowed, but they turned a blind eye as we were the last ones to leave. Thanks ladies.

Walking back across Hampstead Heath for about fifteen minutes in the other direction to Hampstead village, into the warmth of The Wells Pub, our task was complete. We were dumbstruck by aqua amour, by London’s capacity to surprise and by exhaustion. Good exhaustion. And in the silence I was struck by the fact that this pub must have been the poet John Keats’ local, as he lived just around the corner. The man who wrote such wise and, today, such serendipitous ones as these:

“The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought”.

OK, the leaves are still on the trees, but only just.
OK, the leaves are still on the trees, but only just.





Secret Adventures

The element of surprise becomes more elusive with age. Social media hasn’t done much to help that either with every event, personal or professional, publicised from nascence ad nauseum. Which is why the new initiative, Secret Adventures, is so refreshing. You know a certain amount of what you are signing up for in advance, be it a kayaking, hiking or swimming, as well as the city, or the nearest station, but the exact location is left to your imagination until the last minute.

Credit: Ela Wlodarczyk
Credit: Ela Wlodarczyk

Consequently, as I pulled into Richmond staion in London at 6.30 pm on a Friday nnight in August, squished between exhausted looking commuters heading home for the weekend, I realised that I had an almost naughty grin on my face. Like I was breaking away from the norm and not just going home to watch a box set. All I knew was that I was to meet a group of other secret adventurers outside the station, and that we would be led first to a pub for a bit of socialising (and a bit of Dutch courage) and then to a secret location for a moonlit swim.

Our master of secret ceremonies, Madoc Threipland, was waiting for us. No sign in hand publicising his venture, just a smiling, quiet self-assured young man, in whom I felt instinctively I could put my trust. But hey, if I had told my mother that I was going to meet a stranger on a Friday night, let him take me to the pub and then to a secret location to take my clothes off and swim in the dark, she might not have felt the same way about it. But somehow, with Madoc, I realised that although his adventures are all about exploring wild places, they are not about going wild. They are actually just about just finding serenity in this case, in the city, in a civilised and social way.

Madoc led us through Richmond, and up its eponymous hill which overlooks the Thames, explaining that it is the only protected viewpoint in England, by law. This is not only because it is not only stunning, especially in this late summer evening light, but it has also been captured by the likes of Turner in his famous painting, The Thames from Richmond Hill. From here to the pub.  I was a little bit concerned about this bit, thinking that it might have a dating site sort of a vibe, but actually it wasn’t at all like that. There was a good mixture of ages, gender and professions, with one shared frisson of excitement about when the secret would be revealed.

Wild swimming in London by moonlight. Credit: Catherine Mack
Wild swimming in London by moonlight. Credit: Catherine Mack

What did surprise me, however, as we continued on our journey after dinner and, eventually, found ourselves all changing into swimgear, using large trees to protect our modesty in the moonlight, was that there were no tourists in the group. We were all Londoners, keen to explore the hidden corners of our beloved city. And all revelling in the fact that, despite the usual anonymity of fellow city dwellers as we rush and brush past each other on streets and subways, here we were being given permission to share a secret, sensual moment with strangers. Swimming in the moonlight. So, all that to say, tourists are missing a treat here.

We all went our separate ways on the last train home, segueing smoothly back into our usual public transport dispositions. But the naughty grin was still there, topped up with a dose of reassurance that we can all jump off the hamster wheel from time to time. I can’t tell you where we jumped of course. Because that would just spoil the secret.

For more information see Secret Adventures or follow them on Twitter @scretadventures

A weekend on The Thames

Loving Somerset House. Photo: Catherine Mack

One of London’s greatest icons is the Underground Map. Designed in 1931 by Harry Beck, his mass of multicoloured lines will lead you horizontally, vertically or diagonally from one end of this sprawling city to the other. But it isn’t really the bowels of the city that appeal to me for a family visit.  If you really want to breathe in London life, you never actually have to leave the banks of the river. The Thames is London’s artery; a tidal, working river which led us into endless nooks and crevices of London’s past and present.

A family weekend on the Thames really requires a boat and, if you book well in advance  you can stay on a luxurious barge overlooking Kew Gardens (www.bushhouseboat.co.uk). We were after something a little more central, however, so we opted for the family-friendly Novotel Hotel in the heart of Waterloo, nestled into a leafy corner just off the riverbank at Lambeth Bridge. Our spacious fifth floor room overlooked The London Eye, Lambeth Palace, and the Houses of Parliament with Big Ben giving us our early morning call.

Walking around London can be a bit of a nightmare with children, until you discover The Thames Path. It is traffic-free, tree-lined and only a minute’s stroll from our hotel, so it made for easy planning, with our daily itinerary starting to revolve around bridges. A short stroll down the Path to Waterloo Bridge led us to our first river spot at Somerset House. Since it was built in 1547, this has been a royal residence, a naval centre, a tax office and, most recently, a collection of art galleries. But it’s what is hidden behind Somerset House’s austere frontage which really made us smile – a giant courtyard flowing with water from about fifty fountains. Enjoy the art inside by all means, but the picture on the children’s’ faces as they run around outside, getting totally soaked, is truly priceless. We had come prepared with towels and togs for the boys, as we sat back and sipped a glass of wine enjoying the freedom and general wild abandon that this place invites.

It was hard to pull ourselves away from the water, but knew that it wasn’t far away for a cool-down session if we needed it. In fact, nothing is too far on the Thames, once you get the hang of navigating it. This was made easy by the

Shakespeare's Globe Photo: Catherine Mack

Thames Clipper commuter boat service . A family ‘roamer’ pass allowed us to hop on and off at whichever pier we fancied. It wasn’t the cheapest way to get around (£26.50 for a family day pass), but definitely the most fun, spacious and, if you have one, totally buggy-friendly.

From Somerset House, it was only a ten minute boat ride down to Tower Bridge, where we walked straight off one gang-plank onto another – The HMS Belfast, which was indeed constructed in Belfast’s shipyards as a WW2 battle ship and now turned naval museum. War museums are not my thing, but the curators of this one have rather brilliantly recreated the atmosphere of what it must have been like for these men serving at sea for months at a time. After three hours on board studying engine rooms, missiles, ship’s kitchen, hammock-filled dorms, and hearing veterans’ audio accounts, we took our final salute on the ship’s bridge. Poised in the Captain’ s chair, my older son, Louis, said “How is it that the Captain had so much control, and yet did so little of the work?” An elderly medal-wearing veteran visitor guffawed loudly as he passed by, enjoying my little mutineer in the making.

The Thames has always divided the city socially as well as geographically. In Elizabethan times, the South was outside the City of London’s authority – trading was swapped for theatre, finance for farming and, in many ways, these roots still hold strong. Although the farming has gone, many old markets have remained South of the river. As for the arts, the South Bank is the centre of the London arts scene. Our next stop was Bankside Pier, where we walked straight off the boat into Shakespeare’s Globe – a magnificent round, white-washed, timber beauty, its thatched roof open to the elements. It comes as a disappointment to many that The Globe is, in fact, a reconstruction, but I think of it more as a perfect homage. In 1949 American actor and director, Sam Wanamaker, was visiting London and went in search of The Globe, disappointed to find only an old blue plaque on the wall of a derelict brewery. For the next forty years, he followed his dream to pay proper tribute to Shakespeare and, after years of fundraising and planning battles, this magnificent structure was finally opened in 1997.

Lunch at superb Borough Market. Photo:Catherine Mack

We visited the exhibition and took a tour of the building to learn more about this amazing man’s quest. No modern building techniques were used in the reconstruction, using English oak, thatch and lime mortar plastering, and it is the only building in London with a licence for a thatched roof. Everything at the Globe is done in as traditional a way as possible, including the seating. Later that day, Louis and I watched All’s Well that Ends Well from our wooden bench, glad that we had rented a cushion for a £1. Or you can buy a ‘yard’ ticket for £5 where, just like the ‘groundlings’ of the time, you stand throughout the show. These are the best tickets in the house ‘though, as you can get up close and personal with the actors as they weep, and feel the sweep of a rapier as they fight. If you don’t think that Shakespeare is going to do it for your kids, and to be honest, this is the place to see it done as it should be, you could head to The Unicorn Theatre just beside London Bridge, London’s leading children’s theatre, often upstaged by West End hype.

The next morning I took an early morning stroll around Borough Market at London Bridge and Walworth Market nearby, with walking tour guide Sandra Shevey . Passionate and knowledgeable  about London’s markets,  Sandra just opened her Pandora’s Box of a head full of historical titbits, social politics and contemporary gossip, and was the most delightful company for three hours.   I made sure that I didn’t leave Borough market without a quick stop at Hobbs’ Roast Meat stall for baguettes brimming with layers of hot roast pork.  The boys had spent the morning back at the fountains in Somerset House, so I hopped back on the boat up to Waterloo and followed the screams of delight emanating from our new favourite urban haven.  Met with wet hugs and sunkissed faces, they devoured the takeaway delights and dived in for another soaking. “Can we stay here for the rest of the day? Pleeeeese!” they shouted. With the Thames as my new guide, I realised that this was the moment to sit back, enjoy, and just go with the flow.

An edited version of this article was published in The Southern Star, Ireland

Just keep walking along the Thames Path and you'll find something interesting. Photo:Catherine Mack