Friday 18 April 2014

Charlton Lido, swimming poems, Waterlog

Londoners, especially south-east Londoners, where are you?  Why not here?  Forget all London’s other best-kept secrets, this is The One.  5pm on Good Friday: me and 3 other swimmers in this heated, 50 metre, open air pool. 

Swim on your back and align yourself by the clouds – not many of them recently, instead blue sky which goes up, and up, and up.  Swim on your front and, if the sun’s out, watch the net of light-ripples on the pool floor.  In calm conditions, there are extra bright points of light where ripple lines intersect, reproducing the knot pattern of a fishing-net.  You, shadowy swimmer, are the fish, or, as you spread your arms/legs, Leonardo’s (wo)man in a circle.     

The pool floor and sides are a perfect pale, coolish blue.  Black lines down the centre of each lane have the fat certainty of masking tape.  At lane end they make a T-junction and break into dots (why is this satisfying?)  The water is heated to 25oC, which makes it a lot warmer than the air on a cold day like today, yet refreshing in hot weather.

Plodding up and down the quaint but dirty and run-down 25-yard local indoor pool can be a slog, though the aftermath involves mild euphoria.  Lido swimming is something else entirely – exhilarating while it lasts, and 4 hours later I’m still on a high.  

Photo: News Shopper
The peripherals are unfussy – changing cubicles round the side, (hot) poolside showers, lockers if you need them, all surrounded by plain art deco brick.  There’s a café plus terrace upstairs, newly opened, which looks good.  There’s a gym and stuff too.  And new loos; when the lido first re-opened briefly a couple of summers ago, the loos were ruin porn, a reminder of the pool’s precarious survival through the last three decades. 

Next to the lido is a beautifully kept small park – more a garden, really – full of blossom trees, birds, lavender hedges for the summer, and formal flower beds.  Today there was a single yellow rose, fully out. 

Anyway the lido is back now and is going, they say, to be open all year round… but each time I’ve been there in the last month since it re-opened, usually at lunchtime on a sunny weekday, there’s only been a handful of swimmers.  Last summer it opened for a few weeks and was so packed in the hot weather that you could scarcely spread a towel.  I’m afraid that if people don’t visit out of season, it’ll go back to the summer-only opening of former days.  The lido website is here, with a map, directions etc. 

People, go, it is heaven!  It’s also part of the much-vaunted and much-criticised Olympic legacy. 


Walking and poetry go together; swimming and poetry not so much.  There’s something about the swing of the walking legs, beat of the feet, beat of the heart that invites thoughts into a pattern.  But I love the rhythms of swimming, the sweep and frog-kick of breast stroke or the different water-wheels of front and back crawl.  Being in the semi-alien element of water does inspire poems. 

This is an extract from ‘Going Swimmingly’, from Katherine Pierpoint’s collection Truffle Beds (1995) which has several swimming-pool poems. The whole poem is here. 

Sheer weight and size of water!
Remembering some geography and its clean, cross-section diagrams
The sea is an upside-down mountain of water,
An upturned yogi
Alive with pulling, fluid muscles;
A pressing city of water; a universe;
The town pool is an inverted block of flats, something
Gathered and gently milling. Container for a small revolution.

Hannah Lowe’s Chick also has a few.  This is from ‘What I Think About When I’m Swimming’:

           It is boring to watch me swim.
What is beautiful are the tiles
           with their century of rust,
                       the pool spread like a sunken ballroom,
marbled with the winter sun and here,
           the deep end’s edge
where I hang breathless,
           wet and warm and sad…

Then there’s Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, not poems but prose, a sort of diary of a swim through Britain.  He lived in north Suffolk in an old house with a moat (not that uncommon around there – you can drive around with an ordnance survey map, finding all the houses with boomerang-shapes or squares of water – moats must have been bang on trend there for a while).  The book opens with him swimming in the moat, with a “frog’s-eye view” of a rainstorm.  Mostly his swim-journey was about getting away from lengths but he did visit some pools, and expressed hope (in the late 90’s) that the re-opening of some famous lidos might signal a move back towards public provision.  Here he is in Parliament Hills Lido, almost alone on a sunny, cold November day: can breathe and move in perfect rhythm, so the music takes over.  Mind and body go off somewhere together in unselfconscious bliss, and the lengths seem to swim themselves.  The blood sings, the water yields; you are in a state of grace, and every breath gets deeper and more satisfying.  You hunker down and bury yourself in the water as though you have lived in it all your life, as though you were born to it, and thoughts come lightly and easily as you swing up and down in the blue.  The sublime word ‘swimmingly’ is born of such moments; so is the Greek word ekstasis, root of ‘ecstasy’, which means simply to be outside your own body – exactly the state you achieve in a cold-water swim.  If you tread on air on your way from the pool, it is because you are floating somewhere above your corporeal self. 
   The beauty of a swimming pool is in its graphic simplicity, framing the contrasting, exquisite complexity of the snaking, opalescent mosaic of wave-forms projected on the bottom.  What you are seeing is changing so fast your eye can never quite catch up with it.  In every way you are dazzled.  It is not water you perceive so much as light, and how water can play with it.

Charlton Lido is open throughout the Easter weekend.


  1. Dear Fiona

    I love swimming but I rarely get the opportunity these days. I remember the last time we went to Tunisia (during February) there was a beautiful blue hotel pool with no-one in it. Hoping to encourage the others I dived in at the deep end and swam a length. Nobody had told me that the pool was unheated and the water temperature must have been about one degree celsius. So I broke the ice in more ways than one! However I still thoroughly enjoy swimming and wish that there were more pools around.

    Best wishes from Simon

    1. I had a similar experience once, in a hotel pool in Botswana - and swam several lengths, to the bemusement of the waiters and other guests. It was probably less cold than your Tunisian pool.

      Good luck finding the next swim, and happy Easter.

  2. Dear Fiona

    Thank you and a belated Happy Easter to you too!

    Best wishes from Simon