BROCKWELL LIDO, LONDON

30th August 2016

I have mixed feelings about London. I am not a natural born city girl, I prefer a small town or a coastal village. Small towns cling to the margins of larger conurbations, and coastal villages cling to the margins of the land itself; one foot wet, one foot dry. I often feel marginal, in all sorts of ways, so perhaps that strikes a chord.

But cities are at the heart of everything, and while that makes them visceral and critical it can also make them bloody and self-important. There is a swagger about cities that I find spiky and intimidating. They make me feel like the awkward, clunky teenager I once was and take me right back to being the girl who never felt at ease, and never quite understood why not.

London does that to me. I used to wish I could fit in there, but as I’ve matured I’ve realised that there are marginal places all over the city where fitting in matters less. Places where no one group rules the roost, and it is easier to blend in. London’s lidos are amongst those marginal places; all life is there, levelled by swimwear. Lidos are crucibles where weight, race, age, manners, fitness, gender and ideology are rendered down to produce a singular quality that lives nowhere and everywhere. I don’t have a word for that quality, not for want of trying, but it encompasses absence more than presence. The absence of day to day reality, the absence of self-consciousness, of anxiety, of isolation. On hot days we crowd amongst one another and we basically get along just fine. We lose a lot of the attitude, we take ourselves less seriously, we forget a little about who we are.

Whatever this quality is, this absence, it was paradoxically present in spades at Brockwell. We arrived early enough to avoid the queues, but the pool area was already busy as by 1030 the air temperature was already in the high twenties and the paving slabs were gradually being replaced with bronzing skin and a patchwork of towels. The atmosphere, however, was entirely without the prickly self-isolation that characterises much of modern life — especially in cities. We nestled in next to a mother reading stories to her damp children, reached an understanding about her son’s water pistol and while I waited for Claire to join us the children made a break for the pool. They slipped into water with the ease that we had slipped into the tide of day trippers that ranged around the water’s edge.

The pool is unheated and against the hot air the 23c water felt deliciously tart when I finally tore myself away from the talking and got in. The bottom is a little grubby, but this is a concrete rendered tank and they are very difficult to keep spotless when a pool is well used. I was happy to forgive Brockwell her dirty bottom, her slightly cracked coping and her somewhat mucky changing rooms. Her other charms far outweighed that. She lacks some of the majesty of Parliament Hill, despite their obvious similarities, but she doesn’t feel like a poor relation. There were plenty of good wide lanes, the lifeguards were friendly and helpful, the social swimming area was big enough to cater for everything from the babes in arms to boisterous teenagers. We loafed about on the decked terrace, the children bought ice lollies from the charmingly striped hut and there was a general seaside feel to the place that wasn’t reduced by the slightly odd sensation of briefly falling into deep shade when a low flying jet momentarily obliterated the sun.

I’m also impressed with Brockwell’s attitude to being an unheated pool. There was none of the ‘you’ll need to be brave, it’s freezing’ that I have recently heard at Stratford Park and Finchley. There was, instead, a normality about the temperature, as though it would be downright odd to heat the water. In short, a complete absence of concern about what anybody thought about the matter. There are clear and helpful signs with good cold water swimming advice for when the temperature falls, and the sauna parked in the corner made me begin to hanker for the bite of single figure water temperatures.

That will come soon enough, but as we enjoyed a fine lunch on the terrace of Brockwell’s Lido Café (fittingly on the margins between pool and restaurant) I was utterly content to cling to the heat for as long as it lasts.

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