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.





Wild swimming in a bog pool – beat that

Catherine swimming in a bog pool in Soomaa National Park, Estonia

It’s not every day you get to swim in a bog pool in real wilderness. But head to the Soomaa National Park in Estonia, just two hours drive from the stag-filled bars of its capital, Tallinn, and you will find yourself in the middle of Soomaa. Which translates as ‘Land of Bogs’ where you can meander through meadows and mires by canoe,  hike across squelchy sphagnum moss with the aid of ingenious bogshoes, and cool off in the most divine natural pools you will ever come across.

Unlike many other peat bogs around the world, Soomaa’s grew out of the ground, “rising slowly like a loaf of bread”, Aivar Ruukel, my guide says, ” forming cracks on the crust where rainwater lakes have now been formed – these were our swimming pools when we were children”.  Soomaa National Park is one of twelve protected wilderness areas in Europe, and a member of the Pan Parks Foundation (panparks.org), an organisation which aims to protect some of this our most undisturbed land and seascapes, and here on Kuresoo bog, the largest of Soomaa’s bogs at 110 square kms, you really do feel like you are at one with wilderness.

Catherine canoeing in the Soomaa National Park

Aivar Ruukel is the founder of leading ecotourism provider, Wilderness Experience in Estonia and knows every hidden path, concealed creek and foraging treasure trove in this part of the world. He is a wonderful ambassador not only for sustaining the ecotourism he truly he believes in, but also for the Estonian people and their innate sense of being at one with nature. As we hike across the dramatic landscapes of  their ancient woodland, which then opens out into a vast bogland, where cranberries are tucked in under layers under moss,  like jewels hidden and forgotten by pirates in times gone by. Aivar and his co-guides Algis and Ain’s eyes are always open to nature’s surprises, their focus on the fecundity of it all – from Chantarelles to Cloudberries, always sharing their innate joy of this forage into their own backyard even though they have spent all their lives here.

But for me, the real way to connect is to dive straight into these pure dark waters. Encircled by reeds which glisten in the autumn sun I strip off and jump in, having had the sense to throw my swimmers in my backpack. The Estonians do it their way of course, au naturel, but it will take a few days for me to shed my urban modesty.

Catherine bog shoeing in Soomaa National Park, Estonia

Back at my charming riverside guest house, Riisa Ransto, where my lovely host has preheated the wood burning sauna, I bash myself with birch and sweat out whatever impurities are left. However, a few days hiking, canoeing and swimming in this stunning wilderness will detox and destress you quicker than any spa. Until you notice the price of the beer, that is, and all that goodness is undone, the upside being that you have just another excuse to dive into the wilds again.

For more information see Wilderness Experience in Soomaa , soomaa.com. From €510 per person (minimum two people) including airport transfer from Tallinn or Riga in Latvia, four days of guided activities, five nights’ accommodation and all meals. Activities include canoeing, bogshoeing, foraging, wild animal tracking, or back country skiing and kicksparking in winter months.  For more information on Estonia, see visitestonia.com

Wild swimming for families

Kids love to go wild swimming too Photo: Catherine Mack

Ever since returning from my swimming holiday a few years ago, my kids have been pestering me to know when they can do one too. Most swimming holiday providers don’t cater for kids, or families, being aimed more at the long distance neopreners. However, there is a place for everyone, and Dan Graham and Gabby Dickinson who founded the new outdoor swimming company based in North Wales, Gone Swimming, have filled this gap in the market.

This coming October half term, from Saturday 27 – Tuesday 30 October, they are running a family wild swimming long weekend, teaching not only the skills of open water swimming to parents and children, and as Dan is a water safety expert and Gabby is a child care professional (as well as complete water babies themselves) they are well qualified to do so too.

They are basing the trip in Cwm Pennant Hostel in the Cwm Pennant Valley close to the base of Snowdon. From here, they have a plethora of outdoor swimming spots on the doorstep, and the choice of swim will depend on the weather conditions and also the sort of thing that families are hoping to do.

Gone Swimming want to provide families with the knowledge they will need to make sure that they carry on wild swimming long after the Half Term. They will be reading the maps, deciding on locations as well as learning about how cold water affects both adults and the kids. Dan and Gabs will be with them in the water and every step of the way, but this is not a coaching or training weekend, more a blast in the open water sort of weekend. And yes, wetsuits are a must!You can also hire them from Gone Swimming if needs be.

Learning to embrace the cold while wild swimming Photo:Catherine Mack

There is an early booking offer on this trip of £300 per person, adults and children alike (a saving of £50 per person over the regular price) – that is for an all inclusive three night stay (arrival Saturday and depart Tuesday). It is also worth noting that they will pick you up from Bangor station if you choose to go by rail, so dig out your Family and Friends’ Railcard and get a great offer on the train too.