The arrival of November brings with it heartwarming news – at least, it does for the hardy (or possibly foolhardy) folk who swim all-year-round in the gigantic open-air pool at Tooting Bec Lido in south London.
For, as the water temperature dips towards 10C, something wonderful happens – the poolside sauna opens for the winter. This means that once you have swum as many lengths or widths as your bare body can bear, you are able to leap out of the pool and into a wooden cabin full of welcoming heat – plus almost always fascinating conversations.
When people are almost naked and jammed up together on wooden shelves, they pretty much have to talk to each other – even if they are British.
There is much chatter about the weather and temperatures of course, but also lots of things that have nothing to do with freezing or feats of endurance: relationships, politics, health, nature, science, education…
From October to April it’s South London Swimming Club (SLSC) members only at the Lido, and I’ve happily belonged to SLSC for over a dozen years. When I first joined, there was no sauna, and the only way of attempting to warm up after an early-morning swim in the gloom was to stand under a meagre lukewarm shower in the changing rooms for a while and then put on several sweaters for a shivery return home. And before that, they didn’t have anything much, apparently, only a cold shower by the pool (paradoxically, probably helping you warm up more than a hot one).
Which brings me to the ‘double dipper’, something that most of us practise – you swim in the cold (which will soon be down towards 1C), hit the sauna until you’re hot, and then jump back in the water for a freezing-cold dip or quick width before drying and getting dressed. The glow you get from that beats most other sensations.
That’s why we do it, I think. That and the fact that it seems to keep us healthy. It must be beneficial, because so many of the regular all-year swimmers are in their sixties, seventies and eighties. And the older they are, the tougher they seem to be.