A few years ago, I learned that the pool for the 2012 London Olympics had reopened as a public swimming facility, the London Aquatics Centre. And I began stalking it online. I didn’t send it threatening emails or anything like that. But every once in a while, I’d go to the website and look at the photos, check the schedule, maybe review the prices. I’d plug the address into Google Maps and see where it was located and figure out how I could get there on public transportation — all perfectly normal behavior for a person living 4000 miles away from London.
Of course, when I went to London for a month in fall 2017, swimming at the London Aquatics Centre was very high on my list of things to do. I swam three times at the LAC, and each time it was fantastic: it is both an incredible world-class pool and an accessible public facility.
First, getting there: I was staying in central London, and I had originally planned to take the Underground to Stratford (special note for Shakespeare fans: this is Stratford in East London, not Stratford-upon-Avon). A knowledgeable friend told me to take the Javelin train instead. It was easy; you get the train at St Pancras and take it one stop to Stratford: seven minutes on the 140 mph train. You can use your Oyster card. Then follow the signs to the London Aquatics Centre.
At the time I went, one swim at the LAC cost £5 for an adult. You need a pound coin for the locker, but you’ll get that coin back. There is one large all-genders changing room, with cubicles for privacy.
I did two things wrong before getting in the pool. First, I tried to take a photo on deck. The lifeguard very politely told me that photos were not allowed on deck. That is a good rule, and I should have asked if photos were permitted before I tried to take one. Second, I tried to take my towel on deck. Another lifeguard very politely told me that towels are not allowed on deck. That is a weirder rule, but I was not going to argue with him. I left my eyeglasses in their hard shell case by the side of the pool, and they were fine.
In spite of my gaffes, I made it into the water. And after stalking the pool for years, I was not disappointed. I have a tiny bit of experience with quality competition pools, but this pool is on a higher level. The water is clear and deep and calm. The pool design minimizes waves, so even though there were multiple people in every lane, I felt as if I were swimming alone. The pool is set up for long course, 50m. I picked a center lane and pretended I was Katie Ledecky winning the gold in the 800.
I saw people of all ages and abilities in that pool, plus a bunch of children taking lessons in the warmup pool. If you find yourself in London without your swim gear, you can buy everything you need there for reasonable prices. They even have a vending machine that sells goggles. If you are a swimmer and you are in London, get yourself to this pool.
The London Aquatics Centre is the new must-do swim experience in London. The bathing ponds at Hampstead Heath are the classic must-do swim experience. People have been swimming there for over 200 years. They are an institution.
For all the times I had been in London, I had never been to the bathing ponds before. I once swam at a surprisingly cold Parliament Hill Lido, also at Hampstead Heath; I mention it here. But the bathing ponds are not really my style. You don’t swim in the bathing ponds in the way I usually swim. You bathe there. You take a dip. It’s like the difference between running and going for a walk in the park: swimming at the London Aquatics Centre is like going for a run, while swimming at the bathing ponds is like going for a stroll.
But I don’t mind strolling. Strolling is a fine activity. And I was in London; my free time was my own. I thought that I would go experience the bathing ponds.
I made it out to Hampstead Heath at the end of October, taking the bus. There are three bathing ponds, the Men’s, the Ladies’, and the Mixed, but since the Mixed Pond was closed for the winter season, the Ladies’ Pond was my option. I found the sign, went through the gate, paid my £2 at the ticket machine, and made my way back to the changing area. A chalkboard said the water temperature was 11° C, 52° F. I thought two things: it was kind of them to put the temperature in Fahrenheit as well as Celsius, and that’s really cold.
But I am older and wiser than I was at the time I nearly froze at the Parliament Hill Lido. I asked a woman in the changing room how long she thought a first timer should go in, and she suggested that 10 minutes would be enough.
There were three or four women in the pond when I got there, plus assorted ducks. The women were circling around, swimming breaststroke with their heads above the water. One was wearing a wooly hat.
I got in slowly, using the ladder. Not to be melodramatic, but cold water shock can kill you, and I did not intend to die in a pond in London. Then I started my own slow circle of breaststroke.
At first the water burned, but as I swam I become numb and relaxed. I stuck my head under, telling myself “Don’t swallow the water!” and promptly swallowed a mouthful of water. I swam a little freestyle. I swam a little breaststroke. I floated on on my back and looked up at the blue sky. After about 10 minutes, the lifeguard called out to two women who had been in the water before me, saying that they had been in long enough. I followed them out soon after.
In the changing room I took a shower. Other swimmers told me to fill a basin with warm water and stick my feet in it, but, unfortunately, the water was not warm that day. I got dressed quickly, pulled on my own wooly hat, and headed for the nearest cup of tea at Kenwood House, my feet completely numb as I walked up the hill.
I slowly thawed in a corner of the tea room, nursing my tea, surrounded by families having a Saturday out. I am not convinced that I need to swim in the bathing ponds again, but I don’t regret going. It was a must-do, and I have done it.
You can learn more about the experience of being an American swimmer in London (including discussions of jelly doughnuts and breaststroke) here: An American Swimmer in London, Part 1: The Oasis Sports Centre.