Ready, Set, Dive
Country Life UK|May 05, 2021
Outdoor swimming is the lockdown trend that is here to stay. Rosie Paterson takes a closer look at some of her favourite London ponds and pools
Rosie Paterson

I STARTED looking for somewhere to swim in London three or four years ago. Somewhere outdoors, preferably a little bit cold and with little to no chlorine, which can do no one any good.

My introduction to it all began in the River Isis in Oxford during my days at university (disclaimer: Brookes). At the weekends, groups of us would cycle through the city’s golden streets and stagger down grassy banks, squishy underfoot, and into the water, much to the annoyance of practising boat crews, before drying off at a riverside pub called The Perch. In London however, unless you know what you’re doing or want to tempt fate and cholera, the River Thames is best left well alone. For a while, therefore, it looked as if I was going to be forced to swim in one disappointing leisure centre after another.

‘For me, it’s a solitary pursuit. It’s dreadfully boring for people to hear why others do it’

Until that is, I heard about The Swimmer —a half marathon-length swim and run event, held every autumn through London’s parks, ponds and outdoor pools, inspired by John Cheever’s 1964 short story of the same name (www.above below.sc). I cannot run and so had, and still have, no intention of taking part, but for those tempted, I am reliably informed that there’s a jacuzzi at the end and plenty of bacon butties. Instead, I shamelessly stole The Swimmer’s rosta of locations for myself, including Hampstead Ponds, Parliament Hill Lido, the Serpentine and Brockwell Lido (the latter has an excellent cafe, too).

The history of Hampstead Heath’s 18 ponds stretches back to Tudor times, when the springs that rose around Parliament Hill and fed the mighty River Fleet were a vital source of water throughout the capital. Henry VIII authorised their construction in 1589, but they weren’t completed until 1692. The springs were leased to Scottish banker William Paterson, one of the founders of the Bank of Scotland, a partaker in the catastrophic Darién Scheme (a misguided attempt to establish a Scottish colony in Panama) and a more successful advocate for a union between his home country and England. He is, as far as I can tell, of no relation to me.

Why not try a December dip at Parliament Hill (right) or an early-morning splash in the Serpentine.

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