Tooting Bec Lido – London’s finest outdoor swimming spot
“The next thing I noticed was the brightly coloured rows of Rastafarian cubicle doors. Red, yellow, green they went, all along the poolside, and the colours danced on the water.”
Tooting Bec Lido captures the joy of outdoor swimming unlike any other pool or pond in London. Hampstead’s mixed ponds might be more alluring thanks to their more rustic nature, but there’s something about swimming icy, 90 metre lengths at Tooting that’s far more invigorating.
Arriving on a glorious late summer morning, the Lido is already heaving. It’s only 8:30am, but wetsuit-wearing triathletes are already powering through endless laps in a roped off area of the lido. Families are beginning to colonise the grassy area behind the cafe, while sunbathers and hardy South London Swimming Club members line the edges, toasting happily in the fierce heat.
After pushing at a series of “Rastafarian doors”, only to find nearly every cubicle chock full of swimmers’ towels, trainers and tote bags, I finally come across an empty berth. I quickly change, the wet pavement beneath my feet feeling crunchy as I slip off my trainers.
As ever at Tooting, I stride with faux purpose towards the deep end. Since first coming here in 2008, I’ve alighted on the simple plan of getting straight into the 7 foot deep water, giving myself no chance to stand pensively and stare at the ominous length ahead of me. I’m not a diver (nor much of a swimmer, it must be said), so lower myself gingerly down the steps, before falling backwards in something of a heap. I kick myself into breast stroke position and begging to pootle slowly towards the shallow end.
One of my favourite things about Tooting is the ‘come one, come all’ philosophy. I’m overtaken by some seriously impressive swimmers, but for every one of them, there’s another taking their own sweet time, head out of water, just looking around at the spectacle and enjoying the experience.
As I get into my stride, I set to thinking what Roger Deakin would make of the place now? Certainly, it is as popular as ever, just as it was when he visited in the late 90s. The South London Swimming Club, which helps maintain the Lido and, as Roger points out in Waterlog, saved it from closure during the winter back in 1991, has shown off plans for a major redevelopment. The old entrance, at the deep-end of the pool, is set to be demolished and rebuilt, with improved lifeguard facilities and even an office for the club. I have a feeling Deakin would have been impressed by the need for such change, seeing as it’s all down to the lido’s ongoing success.
Most of all, I think Deakin would love the sense of community. It endures and stands as a testament to London’s love of swimming outdoors. There’s an air of escape at Tooting that beats other outdoor spots in the capital. For me, that’s what sets it apart and it’s ever-growing popularity makes me believe that Roger would be even more bowled over now than he was when he visited for Waterlog.