It's been nearly a year since I first dipped my toes into the local lido here in Cambridge but the journey towards that point began way earlier than that......
There once was a girl who hated the cold. Who would quite literally shiver at the thought of sitting on a cold toilet seat and positively baulk at the idea of going any where near cold water. In fact, she was the type of annoying person you see in the swimming pool or waters edge moving at a painfully slow pace, lowering her body in to the water inch by inch, oohing and ouching every step of the way.
In the winter if she could have had a little portable radiator on her back….she quite simply would have done.
Skip to the winter of 2021 however and something began to shift, sparking a glimmer of curiosity….
I’d lost my dad in the September of 2021 and in honour of him, had made a promise to myself to find as many pockets of joy in my life as I could. My dad loved life. He squeezed the juice out of life for as long as he could and I wanted to do the same. To live as he had done and seek out life's simple joys (although actually I’m pretty sure he would draw the line at swimming in the lido as he hated the cold even more so than me!!!)
During that first winter, I began walking my side kick Olive, the border terrier. We’d set out early morning around the backs of the colleges, through town and out onto Jesus Green. There was something about the early morning light and hushed tones of the landscape whilst most of the neighbourhood still slept which felt so healing. It was magical.
Part of that walk led me along the river which runs alongside Jesus Green lido where I’d swam as a child in the heat of the summer .
Normally closed in the winter months, they trialled staying open through the year during covid ( when restrictions allowed ) and it had been popular with swimmers.
I’d walk past the turnstile entrance peering in and look at the temperature written on the board outside. At first I just couldn’t fathom how anyone could go into the water in WINTER with temperatures sometimes as low as 2 degrees….Were they crazy?
But then over the next few weeks, my gaze began to drift past the temperature gauge. I began to notice the glistening water being hit by the rising sun. I'd see the outline of the trees framing the pool with new buds ready to burst into life and I’d watch transfixed, the surface of the icy water moving in undulating ripples cast from the early morning breeze.
And then, then I observed perhaps the most amazing thing of all….I began to notice the people. The swimmers. And it was the same people coming out of the lido day after day and yes, they were wrapped up in layers and nursing a hot drink but they were also positively glowing! Men and women of ALL ages, smiling, friendly and V I B R A N T.
I'd sometimes stop someone when they were coming out and ask them how they did it? what did it feel like? did they enjoy it? I had a need to learn as much as I could and I loved the responces I was hearing.
I envied them. I envied their courage and resilience to get up and take themselves off into the icy water before work. What a way to start your day!
So I made another little promise to myself… I'm not embarrassed to say, I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be that person that went swimming out in the elements .
I knew from reading about it and talking to some of the regulars all about the amazing health benefits. Not just physical, it was actually the emotional and mental health benefits that really sparked my interest.
Now being the girl that recoiled at the thought of cold water, this was going to take time and patience to get to the stage where I felt I could safely get into the cold water (baring in mind this was winter and the water temp was regularly below 5 degrees.
So I began that first winter 2021 with turning the shower to cold for a final blast before getting out, initially just for a few seconds but over time building up to a few minutes at a time.
I surprised myself. I wouldn't go as far to say as I loved it, but I did love the tingles and exhilaration I felt afterwards. It set me up for the day and removed any last trace of the night and sleep from my system!
May arrived, the air temperature was rising and I decided it was the perfect time to visit the lido for my first dip. My thinking was to begin when it was warming up through the late spring and summer, so I would be fully acclimatised once it began to dip through the autumn and winter.
Oh my gosh….that first dip……I almost cried. I can not tell you how bloody proud of myself I felt. I had done it!. I had swam 8 lengths of a 100m pool and loved every, single, second of it.
From the thrill of getting in down the old wooden steps, to submerging my shoulders, to swimming one steady stroke after the next. It took a while to stabalize my breathing but a calm steady inhale and exhale kept me centred. It's all too easy for the body to go into a shock response and cause rapid breathing leading to panic, so keeping your breath steady is paramount.
The sense of achievement and wellbeing I felt, seemed to last most of that day. I literally couldn't wait to go again.
And so I continued 3-4 times a week May rolled into June through to September, November….and before I knew it I was swimming in December 2022 and into January 2023.
The lowest temp I swam in was 2 degrees. Now of course, the length of time I was in the water was greatly reduced but the buzz of endorphins remained the same. It is safe to say I am a convert and can not imagine the lido not being part of my life.
So, other than a this feeling of accomplishment, what has this love of outdoor swimming done for me?
It's gifted me so much and sometimes it is difficult to put it into words, but ultimately it's made me realise I can do anything I want to if I believe in myself and put my body heart, soul and mind to it.
I find a sense of peace in the water, especially when its quiet. On occasions I’ve had the whole pool to myself. It has been meditative. A multi-sensory experience. I am privy too and part of the ever changing seasonal landscape that surrounds the lido.
Eyes level with the ripples of water ebbing and flowing in front and all around me, mind steady on the cadence of my breath. The cold water wrapping around my body as if its being spritzed in a citrus zest.
I am A L I V E and I am fully H E R E in this moment, in every sense . And it is something I am so grateful for.
The sense of camaraderie is beautiful. There is no competition, no one-upmanship of who can swim the furthest, or stay in the longest. Everyone is there simply for the joy of being there, looking out for one another and marinading in the effervescent qualities of the water. We are out in nature, moving and breathing our bodies through the water, flushing out tensions, worries, anxieties. Absorbing community, health, resliance and gratitude for the dawn of a new day.