Monday, 9 May 2011

Torbay, SW2

Brockwell Park
Dulwich Rd
London SE24 OPA
0207 274 3088
Added bonus: Cold and outdoors
Negative: Closed Oct to March. 

My name is Jenny, and I’m a cold water swimmer. Wrong meeting? Tooting Lido, my ‘home’ pool, is outdoor, unheated and in South London; so is Brockwell Lido, and shared attributes make it both easier and harder to review this pool. Easier because it’s near, familiar, and I know what to expect from a cold swim. But harder because I have a choice, and I would always choose Tooting. Unheated lidos are also in a different league from other pools, indoor and out, because cold and weather make such a  difference, whatever bit of the year it is. I have been known to bore on about cold-water swimming, but please look as kindly on me as you would on an alcoholic ex-air hostess doing the exit demonstration at a party.

(Before a cold swim, there is a safety talk: don’t go swimming in cold water for too long. If you want more, ask an expert or read my article about winter swimming, here.)

This lido sits low and long at the bottom of the green slopes of Brockwell Park, in a Grade II listed building that’s well-documented and (quite) recently refurbed, a little modernist gem with enough actual modern stuff to make it work.  You can get a sneak preview of the water through the tall grey metal exit turnstile, and as I peeked, I saw an empty pool. Hurrah. It was a cold, rainy day at the start of the ‘lido season’, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but for a moment I wondered if it was closed. I paid my £5.35 (sharp intake) and went through into the changing room. That too, was empty – a square with benches and hooks around the sides, a small modern shower space designed for slender sharing types, and three toilets at the end. If that flimsy loo door accidentally swung open, there might be a bit more sharing than you'd be comfortable with.  Bit open plan, that.

The lockers are poolside and small; I trailed out like Linus, dropping things as I went. It took a few good shoves to stuff my bag, clothes, shoes into the tiny box, thinking, as I did it: this is like the reverse of giving birth. I looked around; the grey skies weren’t helping much, nor was the paving, very 'council'; empty, the cheap slabbing is a bit bleak but I know from experience, it's barely noticeable under a layer of sunbathing bodies on a nicer day. The pool has a one-storey building all round: to the right, ivy-clad, the café with outdoor seating, and a few tall cordylines that give it a Torbay look,  in the corner, a swoop  of raised decking. To the left, for all its listing, looking like a block from a young offenders institution, all plain brick and small-windowed, not really lightened by the art deco touches . You can visit the café without going to the pool (I know, incomprehensible); I went to a party there once, and all we could do was gaze at the beautifully night-lit water from behind a rail. (Yes, OK, and have a party. But you know. Pointless.)

The pool is a generous size, in this generous space. 50m long, wide, well laned and today, clear, clean and 16.5 degrees (1.5 warmer than Tooting the day before.) A bit of sun would have put a lovely sparkle on that water, but more bodies in it too. I didn’t dally in the rain, I’d already got a bit cold in the locker/birthing process so I hopped down the cement steps quick, into the shallow end. And I mean shallow - belly-scraping shallow.  And youch, cold. Cold swimmers all have their own way of getting it.  I start slow, a bit of a walk, then head-up breastroke as the cold washes up my back, and by the time I put my face in, that’s the first length done. Then it’s on with normal front crawl for as long as I can bear – about 1km in this temperature. I felt a bit sorry for my personal lifeguard, who, in his yellow raincoat looked more like a road safety officer. The water in the pool felt sharp and fresh, the rain put an almost silken feel to it; the bottom is painted the same blue you can imagine they used in the 30s, with thick white lines on. It doesn’t look flash, it looks workaday, but that’s more than good enough. You have to turn with great care at the shallow end, banging your knees on that hard floor. When I stood up, I suddenly feel like a giant.

I was cold when I got out, so I couldn’t quite take in the instructions on the wall, which seemed to suggest I should dry myself before I went in to shower? I went in wet, it made more sense. The shower has one of those sensor wave-your-hand systems which I can get started OK, but once the shampoo is in my hair and the water stops, I can’t seem to wave my hand in the right way to get it going again, and end up a mad cursing woman, bashing at the sensor helplessly. Then I felt something. Was it ... warmth? Aaah! The notable thing Brockwell Lido has that Tooting doesn’t - a heater in the changing room.  Lovely. I stood as close as I could without invoking my mother’s warning about chilblains, and it was most welcome. I put my socks on it as I dried off. Putting on warm socks was nice.

This pool is probably an easier start to cold water swimming than Tooting, not so daunting at half the size. And for that, and for being outdoors and cold, and not too fancy, and having a heater, I recommend it.

The way out is through the grey metal turnstile I’d peeked in at the start. It's narrow, twisty, and my shoulders got stuck. As I struggled to get out I was reminded of the birth process, again.


  1. mmm...spent many a hazy lazy day there back in the early 90s. You're right tho' - Tooting Bec Lido is the best.

  2. Brockwell lido on a sunny weekday morning is the best place in London.

    +1 for Brockwell :-)

  3. call that cold?
    ; )

    nice article