Tooting Bec Lido opened today for the much-delayed first swim of the summer. I was one of many who spent Monday hovering on the overwhelmed website trying to book a ticket – and with success. So at 10.55am this morning I rode down on my bike, had my name checked off against a list of bookings, and followed the marshal’s instructions for the new socially-distancing lido protocols.
It’s online booking only and you are limited to a 45-minute slot, free to members of the South London Swimming Club, or £7.90 for non-members. It’s all quite regimented with lane-swimming only. On arrival, I was asked whether I was ‘fast’, ‘medium’ or ‘slow’ and allocated a socially distanced queue for one of eight lanes.
Having been told to come ‘swim-ready’, cubicles not in use, we stripped off to our swimsuits and were then led round the pool to leave our belongings spaced out along one side; then led all the way round the one-way system to the other side to get into the water.
The eight lanes are across the 33m width of the pool and only the shallow end was in use this morning; the vast expanse of deep-end water stretched out tantalisingly beside us, undisturbed and unused. Meanwhile, between six and eight people per lane began swimming back and forth.
I was a little anxious as to whether I’d chosen the correct lane; I’d said ‘slow to medium’ when asked my preference, but seemed to have been put in one of the fast lanes. It was fine, but I definitely felt a pressure to keep up my speed and not to spoil it for anyone else by getting in their way. “It’s quite intense,” said a fellow swimmer as we both took a break at the edge part-way through.
But despite the constraints of the new regime, it was wonderful to be in the water. In the midst of the London heatwave, with the temperature reaching 34 degrees every day for nearly a week, nothing could beat the feeling of plunging into the sparkling water and moving through its coolness.
Towards the end of the 45 minutes a few people got out of my lane and I swam a few widths almost oblivious to others as it was possible to swim with more distance between us – usually one of the joys of swimming in the lido’s huge expanse of water. The sun was strong, bouncing off the water and lighting up the coloured doors of the not-to-be-used cubicles lining the edge.
At 11.45am a whistle blew and we obediently got out, dried and put our clothes on over swimming costumes, meandered towards the exit, savouring each last moment, forming a happy stream of people trickling back out onto the parched grasses of Tooting Bec Common. It was strangely moving to be part of an almost-silent distanced crowd, knowing we’d all just shared sensations we’d been thirsting for these last few months.
It’s the lido, but not as we no it. No sunbathing or lolling about on the side. No family groups having picnics under the trees. No teeneagers larking about or striking poses for their friends. No chips, icecream or anything else to eat as the cafe’s closed.
But I will be back.