Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Wild swimming in London seems a bit like an oxymoron. Isn’t wild swimming supposed to refer to ragged coastlines and remote lakes? Surely, cities are the exact opposite of wild. When you think London, you think Buckingham Palace and the Tate Modern–not a swim suit. You have a point, of course, but wild swimming is in fact a great way to explore the city, whether you live there or visit.
Living in London, I was introduced to urban wild swimming three years ago and this is my overview of the various urban wild swimming spots in this great city. They are varied, spread out across the city and more importantly, cater to all sorts of experiences.
Central London gets the top spot. My gateway to urban wild swimming came in the middle of London in Hyde Park with the Serpentine and it famous Serpentine Swimming Club. Members of this Victorian-era club can swim in the Serpentine every morning, courtesy of the Royal Parks. After I moved from San Francisco, I searched for an open water swimming club and this one was mentioned several times. In the first months, I became a member of this club and started a new “life” of year-round skins open water swimmer. I’ve never looked back.
Through the seasons, I’ve seen all types of swimmers enjoy the lake. There’s the early birds who come for long swims before the office, the mid-session swimmers who enjoy a social breakfast afterwards, or the last-minute swimmers who rush in for a dip before the clock tells us our time is over. Whatever the weather, I’ve very rarely been alone at the Serpentine. Good thing too, as basic safety requires two swimmers at any one time.
Now, the question begs to be asked. Year-round swimmers in Honolulu, I have no trouble understanding. But London? It took me a while to understand why the lake is such a success in a city in the northern hemisphere where winters are notoriously chilly. Cooling off on hot summer days couldn’t be the only reason, given the randomness of those.
Obviously, all members love the act of wild swimming, whether in the Serpentine or outside. Swimming under open skies brings down your stress levels and makes you incredibly alert for the rest of the day. Some argue it has health benefits and I’d be firmly inclined to agree. Haven’t had a cold since I started winter swimming a few years ago!
For many, the lake is also a training ground for serious swimming events and thanks to its central location, swimmers of all abilities and ages can access it easily. If the lake were out in the boonies, it would be trickier to rally so many swimming enthusiasts on a daily basis. Accessible by bike or public transit, the lake is an easy central stop before work or breakfast. Last, but not least, wild swimming is eminently social and conversations started in the changing room (or lakeside) continue far beyond the Serpentine in pubs or around dinner tables. Wild swimming is a social hub for many urban dwellers.
Going back to the roots, the Thames River is a great spot to swim in West London. Sure, you need some common sense and knowledge of tide tables, but the river is all yours to swim in. With a group of friends, we’ve explored the stretches of the river open to swimming (upstream of Putney bridge in western London). As you can see on this photo in Hammersmith on a summer evening, the experience was a success. The water is murky but it’s clean.
Further afield in Richmond, the river looks positively wild and yet, it’s only minutes from the end of the District line Tube. At Petersham Meadows, you can access the river from a gravel beach and swim across to the other bank, to the island or watch college rowing boats in training from the water. Pretty cool, right?
In East London, the Docks are the wild swimming option. Since the Thames River is closed to swimming from Putney to the Thames Barrier, the docks provide large water bodies in residential or commercial areas and can be great opportunities for a dip. Of course, you’ll come across a few signs forbidden swimming. Danger! Death! Don’t! These signs are here to scare away people and yet, their multiplication ends up in them blending with the landscape and being royally ignored. And how could they not? If swimming was really dangerous in the docks, charity swims and triathlons wouldn’t take place there. Obviously, I urge the urban wild swimmer to use common sense and caution.
When I swam at Shadwell Basin in the summer, local kids were already enjoying an evening romp in the water when I parked my bike. All I had to do was go over the metal chain and reach the floating pontoon, then hop in with others. The water was warm and being surrounded by buildings in the sunset was a tad surrealistic. If you ask me, wild swimming doesn’t get more urban than that in London and yet, it also felt like very right–a great summer evening out. Note that the Royal Docks are open to the public for swimming, an initiative which I salute.
Last but not least, North London. Hampstead Heath is wild swimming central in this beautiful part of the city. Whether you head to the Men’s, the Mixed or the Kenwood Ladies’ ponds, the swim will be surrounded by rolling hills and ancient trees. It might be crowded at times but the setting is quite unique. In fact, the ladies of the Kenwood Ladies Pond wax poetic about their pond and post amazing pictures on their Facebook page, inspiring others to take a dip and embrace the weather. They also publish a book about wild swims around London and organize swims around the country at festivals. What a fantastic bunch!
Don’t do it. In my only brush with the police for swimming at a spot with “no swimming” signs everywhere, it’s obvious that the locals don’t want you in the water. The policemen were very nice and it’s a beautiful spot, but the neighbours are quick to pick up the phone to report you. A shame, that.
Unfortunately, the canals aren’t clean enough as far as I know but they would be amazing wild swimming venues.
Urban wild swimming is a growing trend for good reasons. Lucky us, all big cities were built along a major waterway for trade reasons. Lakes, rivers or coves were needed to transport goods and people, and to provide much-needed water for drinking and industries. Now that waterways have been superseded by railway and roads for industries and goods, the water is much cleaner than ever before. Since more people live in than outside cities, we’ve seen a huge craving for closer connections with nature. Victory gardens and urban foraging are only the tip of the iceberg. It is only natural that people should also reclaim urban waterways for wild swimming.
As you see, wild swimming in London can be so much more than a lovely summer fling. It’s a way to meet new friends and an opportunity to be silly and relaxed when the weather is hot. It’s a unique perspective on the city and your energy levels will be naturally boosted. can even turn into a lifestyle if you stick with it through the winter. Savvy?