Some months ago, as the first Covid winter hit London, a friend asked if I wanted to go open-air swimming with her. She was a regular at the Parliament Hill Lido and wanted company for her early morning swim. It was the novelty of the thing that made me say yes. We arranged to meet at 7.30 am, a few days on, for a swim before work.

The decision made, I went online to learn more about what I had got myself into. My first search returned anecdotal reports on the many promised benefits of cold water swimming, from resistance to cold and flu to an endorphin high that keeps you awake through the day. A second, deeper dive dredged up more reliable details. The Parliament Hill Lido, it turned out, wasn’t one of the Victorian ponds at the base of Hampstead Heath. I had seen Gary Oldman’s George Smiley swim in one of those in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so I was slightly disappointed to learn that the Lido isn’t anything so primitive as a pond. It’s an open-air swimming pool, one of several constructed in London in the 1930s.

The etymology of the word lido is slightly fuzzy. The most reliable explanation tracks the original use to the name of a barrier island in the Venetian Lagoon, Lido di Venezia, one of Europe’s first beach resorts. Lido, from the Latin litus for shore, travelled up the Italian coast and across Europe as a generic term for seaside resorts, trading on the glamour of Venice. It is easy to imagine town planners in London, putting public spaces to new and controversial uses – mixed bathing caused rumblings when the Lido first opened – adopting the term to market the idea.

My curiosity about the setting satisfied, I turned to my friend for instruction on the more practical bits of the business. I learned, to some alarm, that one of the reasons she wanted company was because the last time she had been there she had fainted in the showers. However tempting, hot showers afterwards were not advisable – I was to bring a flask of tea to warm up instead.

The Parliament Hill Lido. Credit: Raghu Kesavan.

In The Lap Of Pain

I woke early on the appointed day. It was still dark out, which always makes me feel like I’ve got a head start on the world. It was 13˚C, not very cold, but I stuffed extra layers into my backpack just in case, along with my towel and a flask of tea. With some borrowed lights strapped to my bike, I set off on a short, pleasant ride, mostly downhill. The Lido is just off Mansfield Road, next to Gospel Oak Overground station. I knew vaguely where it was, but keen to not overshoot, I got off my bike to walk the last 50 metres or so. A tall man turned a corner ahead of me, with wet hair and the slightly hunched, drawn-in walk of someone feeling cold. He nodded hello in the genial way I imagine early risers routinely greet each other. I was startled to find I recognised him. Not for me the stern, bespectacled visage of George Smiley off to battle Karla, but the gaunt face of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s old spin doctor. No spook, then, just a spad.

Filing away this strange London encounter in my head, I turned into the parking lot and walked up to the Lido, a squat little building flanked by long corridors on either side that ran the length of the pool and hid it from view as you approached from the street. I parked my bike and settled in to wait for my friend. She was along quickly enough. We donned our masks and made our way inside. We each paid £4 at the ticket booth. The corridors flanking the booth housed showers and changing stalls, men on one wing, women on the other. We went our separate ways to change. She, to sensibly wear a wetsuit; me, to strip down to fluorescent orange trunks, much more suited to the beach in Barcelona where I had bought them.

Changed, shivering and nervous – me more than her – we met poolside. A lifeguard came up to chat and helpfully informed us that the water was 11˚, a number that didn’t mean much to me. I climbed into the pool and managed to stay in for 10 minutes. Doing a desperate doggy paddle, I somehow completed one length of the 60-metre pool. The water was too cold to submerge my head fully to do the crawl and the feeling of cold eyeballs was too alien to bear for long. Note to self: learn the breaststroke.

Freeze Frame

I’ve since read many descriptions of what it’s like to lower yourself into cold water. Most of them described the shock I felt, especially as my torso went in and the cold knocked the breath out of me. Only one mentioned the fact that your skin hurts, and pins and needles jab your whole body.

A panting, desperate length completed, I hauled myself out of the water. At this stage it wasn’t clear whether I felt colder in or out of the water. My skin hurt more and I was semi-seriously worried that my vital parts may have shrunk out of existence. Later, I looked up what seasoned cold-water swimmers thought of 11˚ water. The Outdoor Swimming Society has a handy guide on its website that divides water temperature into bands on the intuition that we don’t perceive temperature drops degree by degree.

12-16˚: Fresh water. Bracing for newcomers, but no problem for seasoned swimmers.

6-11˚: Freezing. I was happy to see that I wasn’t alone in thinking 11˚ was freezing. The water knocks the breath out of beginners, and is too cold for triathlons.

0-6˚: Baltic. I laughed. The full description on the site is worth reading:

“Jumping in is likely to impair breathing in the uninitiated, as breath comes in big jolting gasps and it feels like someone has clamped on an ice neck brace. Water has bite, skin smarts and burns. This is winter swimming. Limbs soon become weak – 25 metres can be an achievement – and only takes a minute or two at the lower end of temperatures before skin becomes a lurid purple-orange-red (for those with lighter skin) when you exit.”  

In a roundabout way, that last sentence made the term Lido a better fit for these outdoor pools in cold-weather England than it had first seemed. Lido di Venezia is one of two barrier islands in the Venetian Lagoon. Its sister island is called Pellestrina, named for the sun-darkened skin of the fishing community that lives on the island: pelle strana, or strange skin.

I went back a couple of times. Despite the shock, the smarting skin and the shrinking bits, it was exhilarating. I even went armed with a swimming cap and goggles to see if I could do the crawl. It didn’t work, the water was still too cold to submerge my head for any length of time. Then, a new lockdown was announced, and the pool was set to close. In the days leading up to the lockdown I tried to get friends to join me. The endorphin rush, I exclaimed, sounding like a lunatic rise-and-grind influencer. I received many refusals, but my flatmate’s was definitive: “Not a chance! It sounds horrible, and you had to fraternise with a war criminal to do it!”