WEST RESERVOIR STOKE NEWINGTON
It's 6.15 on a Sunday morning, and I'm awake. More than awake: I'm packing my bag. In goes some sesame halva I bought to keep my son going while he's revising but then thought 'fuck it. My need is greater than yours,'* a flask of minimally-diluted caffeine, and everything neoprene I own. I'm doing this as silently as I can so as not to wake the house, but we have a puppy who doesn't understand, I have the Ding Dong Eurovision song going round in my head and I can't find my car keys. Sorry, house.
It's 7.30am on the same Sunday morning. I'm standing on a jetty on the edge of a lake watching the sky get light, and wondering how cold the water is. I'm not in the countryside, I'm not on the outskirts of London, I'm in what is described as 'a picturesque corner of Stoke Newington'. Normally I associate Stokie with couples who were once hipsters but then had babies named Olive or Cecil and had to leave their funtime trousers behind for a more sensible slack. Today, though, it is full of people like me, only younger. People who own neoprene. People who have come to this picturesque corner of Stoke Newington looking for early morning water-based fun. Yeah. You heard me. Water-based fun, N4! These are crazy times.
I'm at the West Reservoir Centre, just above Clissold Park. If you've ever driven down Green Lanes and seen a castle and wanted to buy it but thought 'god no. Kevin McCloud would be all over me like a cheap suit, and also, money', it's there. There's a driveway down behind the castle, and then a huge decomissioned filtration centre – a redbrick square block with two new 'wings', a really good-looking building, inside and out. And beyond this building, the lake. It's a complete surprise to me, that it's there (but less of a surprise, I imagine, to the people who live in the tower blocks around it.) As you go in, there's a view right through to the lake beyond. I'm here for the first of three Capital Tri races – you can find them here if you either want to race or do their open water swim sessions. I really recommend you give them a go: good organisation, very friendly, great location.
I'm not a racer, we all know that. I'm slow, old, uncompetitive. But I wanted to swim here, and this was the first time I could, so I'm pretending to be one for the 35 mins it would normally take me to do 1.5km. I register, and go and change into my wetsuit. Yes. I know. I swim all winter literally in subzero temperatures, and here I am, as the water warms up, in a wetsuit. My problem? That even though I'm acclimatised, which means I'm not worried about getting IN to the water, I find it hard to stay there once I get cold, which I do after about 1km (at 12 degrees) because I am actually human. Even though I'm not racing, I feel chatty with nerves this morning. I advise other women in the changing room to double-cap, but they look at me like 'who asked YOU?' They're clearly in PB mode while for me, PB is peanut butter. I suppress my chatting. We get our briefing, me and my fellow competitors, about the course and the cold, and then, we're up to the jetty, and before you know it, in and off.
I'm swimming in a lake, in N4, surrounded by the tower blocks and cranes and all the workings of Hackney, albeit a-slumber. The sun is coming up, the water is clean and crisply dark, with almost-luminous green flecks that appear to be whizzing by as I course like a seal through the water. It IS cold; the first sighting buoy looks around 400m away, and is small and low. I sight a tree, instead. There are trees all around, the tower blocks are behind them. People keep banging me as they race past, and every time body slips off body my heart leaps a bit - argh what's that - and my adrenaline is surging, so I'm focussing on getting it all in order. It takes about 500m I reckon, til I'm starting to feel relaxed. To settle. I'm sighting every six strokes, and it's tricky because it doesn't create its own rhythm like you'd imagine, just disrupts your existing one. At one point, my thoughts drift off - I start to wonder how this looks to the people at the top of the tower blocks, like lots of thrashing spiders in the water - and I'm heading to the bank before you even know it. I'm wonky, is another thing I am.
Once round the course is 750m, and I lap someone (I LAP SOMEONE!) who is clearly on the last round of a long long swim – his strokes have slowed right down, he's stopping alot, he needs to get out. Still I LAP SOMEONE! I've only done that once before and that time the guy was 94. I'm out here on my own – this thought, quite welcome at other times, has a different resonance when I'm open water swimming. I'm out here on my own. I stamp firmly on the 'what the fuck is underneath me' thought. I distract myself. This is a picturesque corner of Stoke Newington, there are no monsters beneath, I silently say, only dead dogs. (There are no dead dogs in this lake, I am legally required to add.) I sight. I swim. I sight. I think I'm in about the middle of my 'pack' – one group disappearing ahead, and about four swimmers behind. But I'm out here on my own. I stamp firmly … etc.
Finally, two circuits done and I head for the jetty. It's a slippery slope to get out, and I can't quite get to my feet. A man offers me a hand, and I take it. He pulls me, a wet heavy seal unused to walking on land. All the adrenaline has gone, left me a bit shaky. Someone offers me a strange green healthy juice drink, like water from other lakes I've swum in. I take a cup but can't get beyond three sips before I politely have to hand it back, trying not to grimace. I get given a goodie bag. *punches air* I go and change; it's a struggle to get out of my wetsuit and I end up waddling to a bench with it stuck round my knees. The showers are plenty hot, there's lots of space in the changing rooms, we're all a bit more relaxed now we're done and dusted. I don't try chatting, I've learned my lesson from that. Instead, I scoff the banana from my goodie bag which is paper, so disintegrates. *retracts air punch*
That evening, Capital Tri post the race times. Turns out, I'm about the slowest, and the oldest. And it turns out, I DO care a little bit about that. The age I can't do nothing about, but I wish I was faster. I might tri (geddit?). This was, for me, a PW. **** AMENDMENT: SEE BELOW
Open water swimming is on the rise, no doubt. (Open water swimming is different from wild swimming but don't be bobulated by people's desire to repackage - it's all just swimming really.) There are quite a few lakes round the edges of London for open water training; you'll likely meet a few triathletes - here's a note: they're not chatty. There's Denham Lake, Ferris Meadows, Ham Lake, Heron Lake. I've tried them all; they're mostly lovely, bucolic almost, being as how they're on the outskirts (although Heron Lake is practically in the slow lane of the M25). And here's one right practically in town! It's a great location. There is gritty urban life, just a swim away; it's a head-on collision of two tribes.. It definitely has the best facilities for changing, and is beautifully architected. There's a proper cafe, and space to sit outside on a nicely-built jetty. Nothing feels shabby or ad hoc. At other lakes, there's a slight 'camping hardship' feeling going on. Like if you're swimming in a lake, that should be enough for you, you want a shower as well? Oh yeah, and the water feels GREAT, and is clean. So If I were you, I'd go jump in this lake. And if you see a slow old bird chugging round in strange zigzags, muttering 'there's nothing underneath', please say hi.
*You gotta feel sorry for the boy, it's all so passive aggressive. He didn't even ask for the sesame halva I'm taking from him. He longs for a mother who buys hims Krispy Kremes. He'll be leaving home, soon.
**** Today, I got the actual race times, and I was in at just over 34 mins! It was all a ruse! or something. Anyway, I'm disproportionately glad, but I'm leaving my initial feelings up, until my therapist's had a chance to go over it all with me.