Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Wild swimming in London sounds like a no-starter, as wild swimming usually refers to ragged coastlines and remote lakes. Urban settings are the exact opposite of wild and yet, with 40% of the city as green spaces, London is not your typical city. Thanks to Victorian health initiatives and the city’s shipping history, London actually features lots of lakes, ponds and docks that can double as wild swimming spots to the adventurous urban swimmer. With a little creativity, they offer great swimming escapes close to home.
The only hitch is that these spots are not all legal. If you decide to swim there, make sure that you know about local restrictions and consequences. Most importantly, be safe and enjoy reclaiming the city’s waterways.
My weekly 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.
Through the seasons, I’ve seen all types of swimmers enjoy the lake. The early birds show up at 5am for long swims before the office, the mid-session swimmers enjoy social breakfast afterwards, and the last-minute swimmers rush in for a refreshing dip before the Lido Cafe tower clock shows 9.30am. Whatever the weather, I’ve very rarely been alone at the Serpentine.
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. Accessible by bike or public transit, the Serpentine is an easy central stop before work or breakfast.
On 18 July 1927, Mercedes Gleitze left Westminster Bridge to swim a staggering 120 miles, down the Thames and around Beachy Head to Folkestone. In 2006, endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh swam the length of the Thames River as part of a challenge to draw attention to the dangers of global warming. In 2011, it’s David Walliams who swam 140 miles of the Thames River for charity Sports Relief, ending at Westminster Bridge.
It would seem that swimming in the Thames River is A-OK but on paper, swimming in the central London portion of the Thames River is strictly forbidden. Considered unsafe and unhealthy, wiht strong tides and currents as well as heavy boat traffic, it is completely discouraged by the current harbor master of the Port of London Authority. In real life, the Thames River has always been a popular venue for recreational swimming. In the winter, Greenwich swimmers jump in the water for quick dips, attached with a rope at the waist, and laugh about it. Daredevils swim and splash at low tide close to Tower Bridge too.
Looking forward to brighter days when the Thames River will be open to all.
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 no-swimming signs. Danger! Death! Don’t! These signs are there to scare away people and yet, their multiplication makes them blend in nicely with the landscape and be royally ignored. How could they not? If swimming was really dangerous in the docks, charity swims and triathlons wouldn’t take place there.
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 beautiful. The proximity of The Prospect of Whitby, the oldest pub on the Thames in London, for an after-swim drink makes this spot even more desirable.
Eight minutes is roughly how long it takes for the police to come and ask you out of Surrey Quays, which is very unfortunate, as the water is lovely and there are steps going into the water. Ironically, Surrey Quays features a watersports centre and regular open water swimming events, but it seems that the casual non-fee paying swimmer is not welcome. When I swam at Surrey Quays, I actually saw a guy spot us in the water from his building window and dial the police number to report us. It is a bit disheartening that such a nice and big swimming spot in East London is so “protected” by overzealous residents. What’s the risk to them?
From April through September, the Royal Docks is a giant open water swimming venue open to the public. It is also the home of the London Swimming Club, an open water swimming club based in East London. To access the Royal Docks (legally), you need to book your time slot, wear a wetsuit and sign up for the seasonal safety wristband system. I haven’t been there yet as it’s far from my home and expensive, but it’s a great spot for anybody in East London. More industrial than wild, but still under open skies and clean.
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, unless you swim after a heavy rainfall in which case, the river is a soup of floating branches and mystery debris.
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?
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!
North London’s canals are an unknown quantity to me as far as swimming goes. On the one hand, people claim that they’re not as dirty as everybody thinks, as kayakers and canoeists fall in sometimes and seem to be doing OK. On the other hand, there’s Weil’s disease, blue-green algae and underwater hazards, but that probably applies to a lot of the other urban places too.
I haven’t seen anyone take the plunge there, but the canals would be amazing wild swimming venues. Lined with cool eats and drinks, pedestrian paths and trees, they would be such great aquatic “highways” to swim from A to B (with a mouth shut).
As you see, wild swimming in London can be so much more than a lovely summer fling. It’s a unique perspective on the city that boosts your energy levels naturally. It’s also a way to learn a necessary life skill, away from chlorine tanks. It’s a way to meet new friends and an opportunity to be silly and relaxed when the weather is hot. If you stick with it through the winter, your immune system will thank you for it. Most importantly, it’s a way to reconnect with nature in urban environments where nature has been so cruelly tamed.
Would you do it?