Caught by the River


7th November 2008

Steve Phillips on the joy of cold water;

It’s a wonder the place is still here. But it is, and Tooting Bec Lido built (or should that be dug?) in 1906 still remains, a watery totem against bad progress and modernity; a refuge for those seeking emancipation from tepid, cloudy chemical filled aberrations, a haven for folks who enjoy sharing their pool with fallen leaves and the odd octogenarian in ill fitting knitted balaclavas (winter only, of course), a place where you can swim relatively unobstructed by ‘lane bullies’ while observing the seasonal change of the poolside trees and the occasional fly past of a curious Jay.

And while its capital cousins pander to the pressures of commerce and widen their brief, tart themselves up and generally succumb to the all-invasive claw of ‘marketing’, Tooting Bec remains a resolutely old-fashioned swimming hole – the Colonels moustache and monocle of London’s ‘lido scene’. Even chlorine is frowned upon, an antique charcoal filter pump provides the requisite levels of hygiene.

From the primary coloured doors of the original poolside changing booths and the rusting ship’s bell that once signalled home-time to its art-deco fountain, entering its gates is like stepping onto the set of some Evelyn Waugh dramatisation. Thankfully Anthony Andrews isn’t often spotted bobbing along.

Yet it still remains something of a hidden gem. There are mornings when it’s possible to experience the magic of piercing its glass-still surface and swim alone in its vast expanse (did I tell you it’s the biggest outdoor pool in Europe?) for a least a length or two. Of course, summer sees the odd mass invasion when the sun decides to shine, but by and large mornings, and certainly as summer gives way to autumn and eventually winter, remain the preserve of a dedicated and passionate core of regulars who care deeply for the place and all it stands for.

And as the winter frosts begin those hardy souls who pay their annual subs to South London Swimming Club, perhaps one the more traditional swimming club in Britain (no lycra clad stopwatch slaves spotted yet), continue to fly the flag.

As the gates close to the general public a brave few continue to take their morning dip in its unheated depths. Talk turns to daily pool temperature changes, the maritime effect and personal psychologies to defeat the numbing, yet life-affirming, grip of the icy water (lengths v widths / Scandinavian hot-cold tactics v constant cold immersion).

It’s re-assuring to find a place still so untouched by time and the rush of progress. It’s comforting to see the same faces and have the same conversations. It’s heart-warming to see old chaps well beyond bus-pass age totter to the edge and plop in on frosty mornings. Thank god such bastions of good intention, good will, love and passion still exist. A rare utopian palace of contemplation and serenity in a world obsessed with speed, time and forward movement. A retreat where time stands still and seemingly has done so for many years.

Sometimes change really isn’t a good thing at all.