The place was Tooting Bec Lido, and on Saturday 26th January 600 intrepid, or crazy, or both, swimmers entered the near freezing water to take part in the 5th Cold Water Swimming Championships. The sunshine arrived far too late to lift the temperature of the water, which was an eye watering 0.5°C, which on the whole was a good thing as there have been complaints in the past from overseas competitors that the British water was too warm.
This was not an expression heard this time around however, and whilst the sunshine glinting on the turquoise water gave a somewhat tropical impression, the illusion was soon shattered by the grimaces of the competitors, not to mention the fact that they had taken on the appearance of boiled lobster. While some gritted their teeth and got on with it, the air was rather blue with the expletives uttered by others as their bodies connected with the icy water.
This event is held bi-annually at Tooting Bec Lido, and is quintessentially a British celebration of both masochism and silly hats. There has been cold water swimming at the Lido since it was first built back in 1906, but the increase in popularity of what we call wild swimming, which would have just been swimming to the founders, means that over 600 people registered to take part this year.
The novelist and broadcaster Marcel Theroux took his place in this years line up, and documented his experience in the Guardian newspaper. He admits that he felt a bit smug in the changing area having had a conversion experience when he jumped into a Ukrainian ice hole in 2012 for a dare, and also having prepared by swimming in the Lido all through the winter.
This is the kind of event that anecdotes are made for, and there were plenty afoot with one in particular for Mr Theroux himself that seemed to sum it all up; the knowledge that nothing throughout the rest of your entire day was going to be as difficult as getting into that water.
He added that the combination of the light, the fresh air, the stunning Edwardian architecture and the fact that you were swimming in the UK’s largest pool by surface area was a heady enough combination, then there was the intense feeling of well being that followed those intense sensations of the first immersion, all adding up to a unique experience that would be hard to equal.