Why wild swimming in the Serpentine is the ultimate London experience

Lizzie Edmonds
·4-min read
Saturday morning Serpentine Lido swimmers (Getty Images)
Saturday morning Serpentine Lido swimmers (Getty Images)

'Wild swimming' is having a moment. Figures show the number of people swimming in open water is up as much as 80 per cent - with almost half a million people in England now thought to be diving in on the regular.

Converts all say the same thing about the joys of open water swimming – that submerging in to invigorating cold water, out in nature while getting some exercise and a moment away from the pace of London life is beneficial for their mental and physical health.

This weekend marks the Children with Cancer UK Swim Serpentine, the biggest open water swimming event in the country, with over 6,000 people expected to swim either half, one or two miles in the famous Hyde Park lake this Saturday.

As avid swimmer in my youth, I decided to take on the half-mile discipline this year and, like thousands of frazzled Londoners, have discovered the benefits of swimming outdoors.

Here’s an introduction to the popular sport.

The Benefits

According to Sport England, the number of people swimming in open water at least twice a month was up 80 per cent in 2018. And in its most recent Active Lives survey, Sport England found 490,660 people went open water swimming twice a month between November 2017 and 2018 – a massive increase on the 266,500 people recorded in the November 2016 to 2017 survey.

Sport England’s Director of Insight Lisa O’Keefe tells me: “We know open water swimming is experiencing a surge in popularity. When we ask people to describe their perfect environment to be active, they often describe outdoors locations citing the importance of fresh air and exercise. They report reduced stress and improved mental wellbeing.”

I first signed up to the half-mile Serpentine event this summer, having given open water swimming a go for the first time last year with Olympian Cassie Pattern. This time, I had a coaching session with Colin Hill - Director of this year’s Children With Cancer Swim Serpentine.

Mr Hill, 49, who lives in Ullswater in the Lake District, said there was a “change in the perception of open water swimming” after comedian David Walliams swam the Channel in 2006. “That really inspired people,” he says.

This week, American breast cancer survivor Sarah Thomas became the first person to swim the Channel four times non-stop, dedicating her achievement to fellow survivors – which will no doubt inspire others.

Mr Hill says of the benefits of open water swimming: “People say it is good for your mental and physical health and it is - but I think its popular because it reminds you of being a child. Of jumping in to the sea or a lake and having a lot of fun. It is liberating.”

Where to do it

Mr Hill, who helped organise the London 2012 Olympic Open Water Swimming event in the Serpentine, says there are “plenty” of great places for Londoners to dip their toe in the water.

There is of course the Serpentine Lido - a cordoned-off section of the lake - which is open every day from June to September with entrance fees starting at about £4. And if you really get in to it, the Serpentine Swimming Club is the oldest in Britain - and they swim daily between 6:00 and 9:30am, including their famous - and no doubt freezing - Christmas day race.

Other wild stretches in London include the newly re-opened Beckenham Place Lake, the three Hampstead Heath Ponds, the 90m Tooting Bec Lido - which is the largest freshwater pool in the UK - and City-side open water swimming and venue Royal London Docks to name but a few. Most cost around £5 a person per session.

Mr Hill also suggests popping down to outdoor swimming pools such as the Lidos in London Fields, Charlton and Brockwell and enquiring about their swimming clubs. He says they should be able to 'put people in the right direction' and provide more information about open water swimming clubs nearby.

What you need

Nothing, other than a swimming costume, goggles, and a swimming hat, Mr Hill says. “But I’m old school,” he jokes.

While I would like to be more like Mr Hill, I can’t hack long stretches in cold water without a wetsuit. A quick dip is fine, but long distances – no thanks. With Olympic triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee as their ambassadors, Huub are one of the market leaders. Their team recommending the Axiom wetsuit for beginners. It costs £199 with more information at huubdesign.com.

Swim Serpentine

Those considering taking the plunge can register their interest in the 2020 Children with Cancer Swim Serpentine at swimserpentine.co.uk.

On Saturday, The Swim Serpentine Festival will return for its second year to run alongside the swimming events to showcase inspirational swimming-related speakers, film screenings and more information about the sport. All events are free to participants and the general public.