This fall I spent a month in London for work. Before I left, I told a friend at the pool that I’d be away for a while. She said, “You’ll miss swimming while you’re gone.” And I said, “Like hell I will.” London is a swimmer’s city; there are opportunities to swim everywhere, from ponds to the Olympic pool, and I swam every chance I had.
In my mind, if you really want to understand how a place works, you need to eat there, and you need to swim there. You might think that with globalization every place is the same, with the same coffee shops on every corner. But one day in London, I stopped in a coffee shop and saw a man eating a jelly doughnut with a knife and fork. I watched him in amazement. You would never see an American eat a jelly doughnut with a knife and fork.
Maybe people eat jelly doughnuts in coffee shops all over the world. But we eat them differently.
And we swim differently too. England is a nation of breaststrokers. The pools are full of people swimming breaststroke, lap after lap of it. I met multiple people who swim nothing but breaststroke. As an American, I was amazed. Our pools are full of people swimming front crawl — freestyle.
From the perspective of the American swimmer, the most alarming difference between English pools and American ones is in the practice of circle swimming. In the U.S. we share lanes by swimming counterclockwise: up on the right side of the lane, back on the right side of the lane. This way of swimming is so ingrained that it would never occur to me to circle swim in any other way. But in England (and in Ireland, and for all I know in other places too), lanes are designated as clockwise or anti-clockwise, and you’d better be darn sure of the direction of a lane before you get in it.
Swimsuits are different in England too — or, more accurately, the suits are the same, but they mean different things. If you see a man wearing a speedo (swim brief) in the U.S., you know that’s a man who knows how to swim; in the U.S. a speedo is the sign of competitive swimming experience. On the other hand, if you see a man wearing a swim brief in England, you know almost nothing; all you know is that’s a man who owns a very small swimsuit.
Sometimes you only find out what your cultural assumptions are when they are not met. A man eats a doughnut with a knife and fork. A swimmer swims down the left side of the lane. And suddenly the world contains more possibilities than you knew.
I spent most of my swimming time in London at the Oasis Sports Centre, in the center of London. It was fifteen minutes’ walk from my hotel, and most days I could get there and back before I needed to get to work.
Here is the extraordinary thing about Oasis: it has an outdoor heated pool. It’s on the roof. I swam daily under the November sky, barely three blocks from the British Museum. On icy cold mornings, when mist floats over the warm pool, it’s almost too good to be real.
The one difficulty with the Oasis Sports Centre is that it is frequently crowded, with 7-8 adults sharing a lane. In a crowded lane, I return to my default settings: I swim like a swim team kid. When I see feet in front of me, I want to catch them, and I want to pass them. I want to lead the lane.
Day after day, I swam like I was ten years old again. It probably wasn’t good for my stroke technique, but it was a lot of fun.
Oasis has two pools: one inside and one outside. All things being equal, I would always choose to swim outside, but on days when I had to be somewhere early, I hurried for a quick swim in the indoor pool: it opened on weekdays at 6:30 AM, while the outdoor pool opened a half hour later. Both pools have three lanes, marked slow, medium, and fast. The indoor pool is 25 meters long, the outdoor 30 yards long. The lifeguards will tell you that the outdoor pool is 27.5 meters long, but if you can keep track of your distance in multiples of 27.5 while trying to sprint around slower swimmers and avoid colliding with people coming the other way, then you have better math skills than I do. Easier to multiply by 30.
When I was there in fall 2017, a swim was £5.80. You need a 20p coin for the locker. The locker will keep that coin, so start hoarding 20p coins if you plan to swim there frequently. There’s no soap or shampoo, but the showers were better than the one in my hotel room. And you swim outside in the middle of London. You can’t ask for more.
Oasis was my home pool in London, but I did swim in other places. Read about the London Aquatics Centre and the Ladies’ Bathing Pond at Hampstead Heath here.