The lido

Finally recovered from the trauma of last year’s visit to Brockwell Lido, I took myself off there again this weekend. It is a stunningly beautiful place – more attractive in every way than the Endell Street baths, where you’ll more commonly find me – and early on Easter Sunday morning, it was blessedly empty.

The last time I was there, the combined shock of the cold water and the length and depth of the pool meant that I struggled to swim at all, panic overcoming physical strength almost immediately. This time around the water was no warmer, but I’m so much better at swimming than I was a year ago that I managed to fight through the cold and the panic, and about a length and a half in I started to enjoy myself.

In the end I swam ten lengths, which since the pool is 50 metres long means half a kilometre, which doesn’t sound far but is the first time in my life I’ve ever been able to measure a swim in kilometres rather than metres, even if it only was half a one. And it was blissful and gorgeous and I couldn’t believe I was less than five minutes’ walk from home, because it felt exactly like being on holiday, possibly somewhere angular and Scandinavian.

So I went back again yesterday, and it was swarming with children, apart from in the lanes which had been designated for Serious Swimmers (I could tell they were serious, because they all wore wetsuits and goggles and went at speeds more appropriate to motorised vehicles), of which I am not one. I managed two lengths of getting kicked and jostled and splashed on before I gave up and went and sat poolside with a book. And that was just as much fun as the swimming.

So now I have to decide whether I am going to become someone who swims at the lido, where it is bracing and elegant and I feel faintly heroic having swum there, or someone who swims at Endell Street, which is craven and heated and more like having a bath than a swim. I suppose I could alternate, but annoyingly the lido isn’t one of the pools included in my Swim London membership, so it’s a fiver each time I want to go. Am I a woman of action, or a woman of leisure? This summer, I’ll find out.

Talking of things you can do in Brockwell Park, I played bowls yesterday. Or boules, or petanque, I’m not sure, and in any case we played a bastardised version of it because we didn’t know the rules. But it was nearly as much fun as swimming, and a lot more sociable. I foresee more sunny afternoons spent on the bowling green.

A small victory

This is me:

Ian Thorpe celebrating a win

I swam TEN LENGTHS today. Actually, I swam four lengths followed by twelve half-lengths, because they closed the deep end of the pool so that some burly men could practise diving with all their clothes on and pretending to rescue each other. They may have been trainee lifeguards, or army cadets, or just burly men who like diving in their clothes. I didn’t ask.

Anyway, I could barely manage two lengths when I started a month ago, so although ten lengths of a 27.5-metre pool is barely a quarter of a kilometre, I am pleased with myself, although you’ll be glad to know that I didn’t actually do a fist pump.

Weirdly, in just four weeks of swimming I have become noticeably (to me and the beloved, possibly not to anyone else) more svelte around the middle, too, so although I never intended to change my eating habits as part of my new healthier 2011, I now have the added benefit that I don’t even feel bad about the two croissants I had for breakfast, or the giant bowl of pasta I plan to eat shortly.

Interestingly, if you Google for pictures of Ian Thorpe, one of the first results is this one:

Ian Thorpe posing naked

Which wasn’t appropriate for my purposes, but I felt like I should share it with you anyway.

Phew

So today I had my inaugural lunchtime swim, and I am pleased to report that while the open-air pool in Covent Garden doesn’t quite live up to Lake Huron, it’s a lot nicer than Brockwell Lido. Architecturally it’s pretty horrible, unlike the Lido, which is gorgeous, but the warm water changes everything and transforms it from a hostile environment into a welcoming one. I only managed four lengths – and, well, I had to have a rest in the middle – but it didn’t leave me cold and miserable like my Lido swim did, but rather happily invigorated, albeit with trembly knees that may not be working at all by the morning. There’s something about swimming in warm water on a cold day that is just perfect and not like anything else. I will be back.

Swimming

In an attempt to honour the third of my new year’s resolutions, which was to find a better form of exercise than Pilates, I have been thinking about going swimming. The last time I went swimming in this country was at Brockwell Lido this summer. The water was deep and icy-cold and I lasted less than a length before it started to feel like a struggle. I think I managed a total of three lengths in about twenty minutes, all the while panicking that I’d give up and drown in the deep end, even though I was never more than a few yards away from a lifeguard, and I was one of only three or four people at the pool.

But water does funny things to me. I can’t watch movie scenes filmed underwater without starting to feel nervous, and the anxiety I start to feel whenever I’m out of my depth is not nearly proportionate to the actual risk, although that must be a commoner reaction than I thought, or we wouldn’t use the term “out of one’s depth” to mean “in trouble”. I’m not a very strong swimmer, but I can float and bob around quite happily for forty-five minutes or so without needing to touch the ground, so it’s a psychological problem rather than a physiological one.

The problem is, most pools – especially serious, unheated outdoor pools like the Brockwell Lido – aren’t really designed to be bobbed and floated in. They’re designed for people who want to swim lengths. Frankly, I never want to swim lengths. I want to do star jumps and dolphin leaps and handstands. But if it’s a choice between swimming lengths and any other form of aerobic exercise, I will happily go for the lengths. I have no desire to lose weight (I feel compelled to say this in the light of my second New Year’s resolution, which was not to be bridezilla: I feel quite strongly that I don’t want to be one of those women who suddenly shoot down to a size eight in the weeks before their weddings, and as it happens this sits very happily with the fact that I have no plans to stop eating and drinking exactly what I want, whenever I want it), but I would like to be fitter and I would like to sleep better, and Pilates only offers small consolation in these departments. I need to do something that makes me tired.

So I think I’m going to sign up for a Swim London pass, which is cheaper than gym membership and covers forty pools across London. It doesn’t include the Lido, which is a shame since Brockwell Park is less than thirty seconds’ walk from home, but it does include Brixton and Crystal Palace, both a brisk walk or bus ride away, as well as the Oasis centre in Covent Garden which is two minutes from my office AND has a heated rooftop pool. I may not be able to bob and float there, but at least I’ll be able to swim a length without my lungs closing up in protest at the cold.

Because the thing is that as well as being afraid of the water, I love it. My two most vivid memories of pure physical pleasure in the last year are of swimming, once here:

Outdoor pool in Cyprus

And once here:

Lake Huron, Ontario, Canada

The first is a pool in Cyprus, the second Lake Huron. In Cyprus I swam twice a day, in a pool that was never deeper than I am tall. In Lake Huron I went out of my depth because the water was warm and soft and tasted of minerals and it wasn’t frightening. Actually there is an undertow in the lake, even though there are no tides, and the bottom has sharp rocks along it – a fact that scars on my right hand and knee will attest to. But you see, I wasn’t scared of injuring myself when I injured myself, so I didn’t mind. And when you’re out there bobbing and floating and spinning, with nobody to watch you except a few water birds and the occasional butterfly, there’s nothing in the world like it.

What do you suppose are the chances that swimming at the Oasis sports centre in Covent Garden will be more like Lake Huron and less like Brockwell Lido? Yeah, me too. But I’ll give it a go.

Swimming pools

In the last fortnight, I have discovered the world’s deepest swimming pool, the world’s largest swimming pool, and now the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre in Sydney, which has just won an architectural award for being generally curvy and sexy:

The trouble with large indoor pools is that the echoiness (it’s definitely a word) and relative emptiness of the space makes them the least cosy places in the world: even the swish new pool at the Olympics looked like a large, bare, unattractive municipal facility. I don’t know if it’s just the curvy ceiling that gives the Ian Thorpe centre such an appealing look, but either way I like it. If, like me, you’re a bit scared of swimming but would like to do more of it, then curvy appealing-looking pools are a very good thing.

Although that doesn’t help me with swimming in the sea, which I will be trying next week. Wish me luck.