While the channel crossing swim is gaining in popularity, swimming clubs have been popping up all around the country in recent years, to cater for the more casual swimmer looking to dip a toe into the open-water world. One of the most well-known and longest running is the Serpentine Swimming club. Holding its first prestigious Christmas day race in 1864, the SCS has been a bastion for inner city open-water swimming, and after removing rules preventing women from becoming members in the early 2000s, the club has seen membership increase ten-fold in the past 17 years.
Brian Thomas, Honorary secretary of the SCS said, “Swimming outdoors tailed off in the late 80s/90s following the closure of lots of open air pools and lidos, due to budget cuts… and so people got used to swimming in nice heated indoor pools with plastic palm trees and wave machines, so this (outdoor swimming) became a bit tough and I suppose a bit boring for a lot of people.”
“But now I think a lot of people are rediscovering it and just enjoy swimming outdoors for whatever reason. You’ve got birds and ducks and things, and I think for a lot of people they just really enjoy being outside, especially in a city like London.”
“I suppose it is like extreme sports … and when people get into marathon running and then triathlons, and they want to try something different and they start do open water swimming as part of that. ”
It is hardy swimmers such as Brian, Brenda, Mike and Kevin who have paved the way in open water swimming, and their experiences paint a picture of a sport steeped in history and slathered in lanolin. After meeting them, this journalist braved the cold and “nasty parasites” in the Serpentine to see what is so special about open water swimming.
7AM is a time I am not accustomed too, but bleary eyed and already damp from the fine rain that England seems to do so well, I headed down to the Serpentine in Hyde Park. When I arrived, I found a crowd of eager swimmers, abuzz with friendly conversation and the unmistakable chattering teeth of those brave enough to have taken a dip before the races began. Welcomed with warm and sympathetic smiles, I changed into my swimming trunks, which felt even thinner than normal considering the icy water. Taking my t-shirt off at the latest possible minute, I lined up with the other swimmers all eager to begin. I just wanted it to be over.
How to describe the water? Everyone has experienced the fatal error of jumping into the shower minutes before it has time to warm up, well imagine that mixed with the icy stare you get from a partner when you tell them you forgot about your anniversary, and you are getting close to how cold it was. Submerged up to my waist I felt an important part of my body retreat to a place that they have yet to return from, but I was in, and in the blink of an eye I was away. In water so cold that your body’s immediate response is to shut down, my breath was snatched away from me, but still I continued. Alternating between granny-stroke, freestyle and what can only be described as stylish drowning, spurred on by nothing more then the need to get out, and a chronic fear of swans, I finished.
Whilst others decided to swim back, I swam as fast as possible to the nearest exit. Hindered by the thick layers of slime on the ramp, I finally clawed my way out, a frozen man, but glowing hot with the sense of achievement that so many swimmers speak of. Whilst the feeling was brilliant, I don’t think I will be repeating it any time soon, or will I? It wasn’t that cold…