SANDFORD PARKS, CHELTENHAM

8th October 2016

I’ve learned a lot about my abilities in cold water at Sandford Parks. Which is something of a paradox, given that for its day job it is a spectacular 1930s heated 50m lido. However, in the dead of winter it has a little sideline in one or two cold water events, and around those there is sometimes the opportunity for casual cold water swimming.

My very first, wetsuit-free, properly cold water swim happened at Sandford Parks in January 2013. I had been spurred on by the imminent bi-annual cold water swimming championships at Tooting Bec lido, and had been getting habituated / acclimatised through the means of cold showers. Which are exactly as unpleasant as you might imagine them to be, but they’re better than nothing. So I pitched up at Sandford Parks thinking I totally had this cold water thing nailed because I could stand under a cold shower, in a heated bathroom, for ten minutes without weeping.

Hubris, as I was to be made painfully aware, is not a substitute for proper acclimatisation. The showers had done their job on the habituation front, and I got into the 6c water reasonably comfortably. I swam about a bit, bobbed about a bit, enjoyed for the first time the all over cold water burning sensation that really is the reason I’ve kept doing this thing, then got out about 15 minutes later when my child began to get bored of being the ceremonial photographer.

I got changed in the lovely heated changing room, having had a lengthy hot shower, then sauntered outside feeling on top of the world.

And then the after drop hit me like the spring loaded door on a walk-in freezer. The warm blood retained in the core to protect your organs, while you’re in cold water, is released only to be replaced with the now cooled blood that has been trapped in your limbs by the reduced circulation. Your core temperature sinks like a stone as that cooled blood lands. Your blood pressure drops, you can feel light headed and the shivering is all-consuming and completely uncontrollable. Does this sound fun, yet? It didn’t feel fun.

I shivered like a loon for half an hour, and no amount of layers or hot drinks seemed to make any difference. I did feel a bit light headed, and it took me several hours, a large supper, a roaring open fire and a couple of glasses of post-prandial red wine before I felt properly warm again. But I learned a lot from that first outing; chiefly that I could do the 30m required of me at Tooting without embarrassing myself, and that bobbing about rather than swimming reasonably hard is as unwise as is the hot shower afterwards. Although I did embarass myself at Tooting — but only because I forgot to put my goggles on. Putting them on at the last minute would have been fine had I not been wearing a pot of jam fashioned from a red plastic bucket as head gear. Long story. Unless you know the cold water swimming championships at Tooting, in which case it is self-explanatory.

In January 2014 when I went back to Sandford Parks I had my first experience of inexplicable cold water panic, a state of irrational emotional flux known to everybody who swims in cold water. I couldn’t swim over the diving well. I still don’t know why, but I simply couldn’t look into the void without my heart rising in my chest and trying to claw its way out of my mouth. I swam truncated lengths, turning at the mid way point. An entirely unsatisfying experience that left me doubting the received wisdom that ‘there’s no such thing as a bad swim’. I have never experienced that level of unease in a pool, either before or since. Plenty of times in the sea, once or twice in rivers, but never in a pool. Thinking about it even now makes my skin prickle.

By January 2015 I pretty much did have this cold water thing nailed, and I swam 800m at a billed 4 degrees. Although we all thought it was nearer 6. Cold water swimmers like arguing about temperature even more than they like thermal vests, fluffy socks and wearing the contents of the post-swim hot drink as the violent shivering lurches it out of the cup. That remains my longest swim / lowest temperature, and I expect it will remain so. I suffer badly with after-drop, I haven’t learned to love it as some cold water swimmers do, and I don’t really go in for the pushing further and lower that seems to be on the rise in the cold water swimming world. I worry about the introduction of a competitive endurance element in this sport, because it is not a sport without risks and with competition can sometimes come corner cutting. I hope my worries are unfounded and we don’t lose anyone to hubris.

But yesterday’s swim at Sandford Parks was warm. They’d only turned the boilers off the day before and the temperature was 20c. Not cold enough to feel the burn, but not so warm that swimming feels syrupy. I liked it. I liked it perhaps a little too much, given that winter is setting in and the water temperatures drift downwards with the leaves.

Although today I swam in a flooded quarry, where the temperature was 14c. And I liked that too. As I drove home this evening, with the low slung, cloud-obscured autumn sun casting crepuscular rays on the contours of the Malverns I recognised the wonder that is in the world — and I started to feel excited about the cold that approaches. Which is a relief after the unmitigated disaster that was Bude.

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