One sunny afternoon at Champney’s spa, Frank Bruno appeared as I was happily swimming lengths. He dropped sideways into the pool, like a mighty oak being felled, and began some v-e-r-y leisurely breaststroke. When he left the deep end just before me, I thought ‘He’s going so slowly, I think I could take him. I could beat Frank Bruno!’. I set off, nearly had a heart attack, but arrived at the shallow end first. He looked over and smiled, ‘Are you showing off with that backstroke?’. ‘Yes!’ I shouted happily. ‘You’re making me jealous man, heh heh heh’ he said.
I love him for that. I’ve loved swimming since early childhood when I got my gold woven badge (Mum sewed it onto my costume) which involved making a float out of my pyjama bottoms and treading water for two minutes. It’s only swimming that could find me, bright and early at 8.45 on a sunny Saturday morning, getting undressed by the side of the Serpentine Lake in the middle of Hyde Park. It’s a first (and not the al fresco public stripping).
Brian, the Club Secretary, signs me up. There’s a pleasing absence of health and safety nonsense; no one asks me if I can swim, I don’t have to solemnly swear I’m not pregnant, or on medication, no one needs to see my membership card. I’m treated like an adult with free will and personal responsibility.
I approach the water. There’s an area, framed by buoys and a boardwalk, of about 100 metres long. I step onto the ramp; the water is a chilly 18c.
Normally it takes me about an hour and a half of shrieking and yelping to enter any water colder than a warm bath. But the ramp descends into mossy, springy, slimy ground, so I jump in.
There are people of all ages already in; from goggles and wetsuits to bikinis. The water makes my skin tingle; I feel like giggling with the joy. It’s an adventure, and about a million times more fun than swimming in a pool (not just because there’s no lane rage – why do mid-speed swimmers chose the fast lane, and then not have the wisdom to stagger their laps?). I love being one of the people that tourists smile and point at.
Afterwards, dressed and sipping sweet tea, I feel a small sense of achievement. I chat to Brian, who’s been a member since 1967. He says that the hundred strong membership includes triathletes, MPs and street vendors and adds, ‘It’s always been seen as a place for eccentric elderly gents, and it still is, for all ages and sexes’.
This is exactly why I already love the Serpentine Swimming Club. As I cycle home, I realise how much that sense of a random community reminds me of living inNew York, where I was part of another set of first-name-only friends. In that case all we had in common was the dive bar where we were drinking, rather than the Serpentine. Although there was also some public stripping.