Henleaze Swimming Club – Bristol quarry swimming
“I passed through the elegant ironwork gateway of the Henleaze Swimming Club and straight into the 1920s. The lake shone like a river by banks of weeping willows and well–kept lawns dotted with little groups of sun–bathers. It was long and deep, as though it flowed between the canyon walls of the old quarry.”
The dark clouds reflect my stinking mood as the train pulls into Bristol Temple Meads. After the impish fun of social swims across Devon and Dartmoor, plus some lido dips in Cirencester and Cheltenham, I’m back out on my own, sniffing out Waterlog swims.
It’s my first solo effort since my bike ride to the River Lark last August and I’m feeling suitably blue about having to do this one all by myself. Flicking through the book as we roll out of Paddington, I discover two new dips I’m going to need to do in order to complete my watery pilgrimage. Halfway in but with the end seemingly nowhere in sight, I know just how Roger felt when he described his swimmer’s journey through Britain as ‘a solitary, fugitive affair’.
After a tussle with smartphone directions to the bus stop, I jump on the number 2 service up to Henleaze. Despite it almost being midsummer, there’s a grey coolness in the air. I know a swim will see me right, but the ride is interminable and my grumpiness seems insurmountable.
Yet, as I pass through those ironwork gates and meet Alison, the Henleaze Swimming Club’s secretary, my mood begins to lift. I sign my name in the guestbook and am pointed in the direction of the lake’s edge and Joe, the lifeguard, who’ll oversee my mandatory 50 metre swim test.
I get into my bathers in the neatly kept changing area (replete with parallel bars for anyone fancying some gymnastic exertion) and head in. At 17ºC, the lake is cool, but refreshing. Joe tells me to swim to a yellow marker and back. I do so in what I hope is my best breast stroke, ever keen to impress. Back at the steps, Joe informs me I’ve ‘passed with flying colours’ (my pride tragically rises) and outlines a few rules. There’s a line in the distance beyond which I’m not able to swim, where anglers have run of the water. I can swim over to the quarry walls, but I’m not allowed to climb up them. He informs me that all the diving boards are open too, if I fancy jumping. I demure and head off.
The water here is green and cleansing. I can just about see my hands as they stretch in front of me, light refracted deep below. I aim for the wall and a rest point where I can see another swimmer sitting just below the surface, shoulders out. When I reach it, I make a slippery grab for the rocks and pull myself up to get a better look back towards the clubhouse. This really is a special and unique place. The members only vibe doesn’t feel exclusive, but appears to have helped keep things seriously spic and span. Lawns are neatly mown, buildings freshly painted, entry points through the reeds well tended.
I take in a couple more laps, one of front crawl, the sky wheeling up and clearing to blue as I swing my arms through the water and lift my head. On a last length of breast stroke, I look ahead and feel as if I’m swimming alone into a deep and mysterious gorge, alone on a wild swimming adventure.
Serious swimming done for the day, I realise I can’t come here without at least trying one of the diving boards. However, having managed two woeful belly flops at Hampstead in recent days, I opt to simply jump off of the lowest board. I hear it boing behind me before I drop deep into the drink. Suitably refreshed, I make my way back to my bag and a flask of warm tea.
After taking a few snaps I get chatting with Roy, one of the part time staff. He tells me he became a member here because he used to be a competitive long distance swimmer and this was the only place to train in Bristol. We exchange stories about swimming holes in Waterlog, about Cirencester’s spring fed pool and the icy lengths of Parliament Hill Lido. ‘I used to compete there in the 60s,’ he says. ‘It was an early season meet, April, and always freezing. It was the longest length you ever swam, although the cold made sure it was the quickest too.’
Roy says that the combined effect of Roger’s book and a boom in triathlon swimming has helped Henleaze remain hugely popular. It currently has 1,900 members and around 250 on the waiting list. That’s changed since Roger’s day, the introduction of weekday memberships letting more people revel in these deep waters.
Packed up and hair tousled, I make my way back to the bus. I walk slower, stand taller and remind myself never to again doubt the restorative powers of cold water.