Thursday, 30 July 2015

London Royal Victoria Docks

Summer. On these optimistic sunshine mornings we trip out in thin clothes with bits of tissue paper for shoes, then by around 10.30 everything is ruined by the thick taunt of dark grey cloud. So it was good that I was swimming early at Royal Victoria Docks, under that first-thing sunshine. It's easier to get into twinkling water. Sun limes the green of the top few inches; it lies on your back like a soft blanket. And when you turn your head to breathe, you see how it goldens your arcing arm. Swimming in sunshine is the best. 

In one sense, this isn't new territory. I've swum in the docks before (doing the Great London Swim at Millwall Docks) and learned then that they're not full of dead dogs and rodent wee. I'm here because this is a new and permanent part of London's open water swimming 'offer' and I take my swimming blogger responsibilities seriously. But I've never been to this bit of London before, not even on the cable cars that whizz along on strings right above my head. Such is my self-involvement, I imagined tourists in the cars saw me in the water and said as one (in generic Euro accent) ‘mein gott, zis voman, so amazink she must be Svedish’.  Over there is another vanity project I’ve never been to, the Dome. There's modern glassy flats and new-build houses in a neat row down the right dockside, offices and restaurants down the left. Ancient oily dockside machinery looms over the water like giant gawky mechanical herons. Straight down the middle, a plane takes off as if the water were its guide. This is flash new London, butting right up against the heft of our old industrial working city.  

Just along the way is a waterside gazebo, but don't be alarmed – that’s just where you register and get your Nowca bracelet so your swim can be tracked and timed, if that’s important to you (it’s not to me, but I do quite like people on land knowing I’m in the water). I thought for a second I’d have to change here, though that’s more of a worry for spectators than for me. I could care less, I’ve re-birthed out of a wetsuit in a minibus full of strangers. The changing area is on a nearby barge, and while its soggy floors and steep slippy stairs are not luxurious, it has showers, loos and benches which are all you need and more than some venues offer.  

On to the swim itself. There are three courses – 400m, 750m and 1.5k, all marked by huge buoys there’s no missing. The water was about 18degrees and I was swimming ‘in skins’, which people use to mean ‘no wetsuit’ though that seems counter-intuitive to me, somehow. Down a metal jetty then in via thin red steps. The water felt soft and was old-felt green. I took a few breaststrokes to acclimatise, always worth doing so you get your bearings, spot your first buoy, suss out where the safety kayak is. It can take a while to put your head in, but take that while. This isn’t a race; there’s no point being out here if you’re not going to get pleasure in your surroundings.

I’ve been mostly swimming in a lake this summer, which has a particular taste. So does the lido, it changes according to the rain/suncream/chlorine ratios. I'm at the stage where you could blindfold me, put me in water and I could tell you what kind of water it is. ‘Hmm. Goosey. Lake’. Or 'I’m getting distinct back tones of pee, I’d say six year old vintage? Lido’. This is different. It doesn’t have a peaty grit, or a cold top of the mouth snap, or a salty diesel bite, all of which I've recently tasted. I’m recalling it sitting here writing this; it’s the taste of old water, a slight texture, soft and not unpleasant. This is clearly not a exhortation to drink the stuff.  

I head over to the first round buoy marking the 1.5k course. I’m right near an old  dark wood jetty. A bit too near, its oppressive and above me tower these dock cranes. I can keep going, right up to the far buoy under a high modern bridge. It looks like out to sea. (It's clearly not.) Or I can turn and go across the dock. And suddenly, from nowhere, I feel vulnerable. I can see the safety kayaker right bloody THERE.  But everything is enormous down here in the water.  The dock machinery looms, the buoy is far on lonely water. And I get The Fear. Not the Sea Fear, which is when the tentacle of some unknown beast will slide up from the deeps, sucker and coil round my leg and drag me down. Not that fear.  Another one, that I’m small and alone, a tiny ant that the water could overwhelm in a flash (I did say, didn’t I, that the safety kayaker was RIGHT BLOODY THERE). The fear that I might just let go. Stop, and fall deep like an autumn leaf falls. The one where you might step in front of the tube. It's a fear almost of oneself. And I could feel it bubbling in me, so I struck out across the water to the 750m buoy across on the other side, trying to keep my breathing steady and not go into full panic mode, not least because it's embarrassing.  And the walls on that side were high, I couldn’t have scaled them and it didn’t feel like fun and I wanted to be out. So I swam in.

That bit of the story is not about the space, it’s about me. It has happened to me in a lido, it’s happened to me when I’ve been swimming with friends. Sometimes it just happens. And sometimes when it COULD happen, when the sea is rough or no one could reach me, it doesn’t. But even when it happens, I still don’t regret that swim. I never regret a swim. Next time I come here (and I will, and you should too) it won’t happen, and I won’t believe I felt that way. I’ll maybe laugh at my stupid human vulnerability.  

The jetty pricked my cold feet as I clambered out, and I stopped to chat with the organiser who is full of good plans for this place – running it year round, for instance. Yes please. We talked about jellyfish, of which there are none. I warmed myself in the sun, before those clouds, bang on time, started to come over. I had a hot shower, took some snaps, and got back on the DLR with tourists and people going into Canary Wharf for their proper jobs. And just had that teeny and unattractive bit of smugness we swimmers can get. Wanted to say ‘you’ll never guess where I’ve just swum’. Add this one to your London list, and we can have that conversation together.