A perfect two lengths…

Photograph taken by friend, ace triathlete, and photographer Richard Stabler

I arrive at at 8.58am precisely, 2 minutes before the shutters come down and nobody else can come in. I scurry to the poolside, throw down my bag, tug off my tee shirt and shorts, and slip quickly into the delicious cool water. It’s the late May bank holiday weekend. The sun is blazing, the sky is blue, and it’s hot for the time of year. I have come to my favourite place, along with several hundred other people, to cool down, have a swim, and enjoy the weather.

Parliament Hill lido. The glorious glistening jewel of a lido that sits at the bottom of Hampstead Heath. My favourite place to be.

Looking at the lido from the outside, all seems quiet, you have no sense of what is going on behind the high brick walls. But once inside chaos reigns. On the poolside kids play with balls, teenagers strut and sunbathe, a tai chi group are slowly forming shapes, parents with young toddlers play on rugs underneath the little available shade.

And in the water several hundred people do battle for a space to swim in. Old ladies with sunglasses do stately breaststroke; fit young swimmers power up and down; triathletes swim in packs and periodically fiddle with watches that analyse how good they are; pale delicate looking young women with translucent english skin and bikinis tiptoe in to the deepening water. All of north london appear to be here.

But it’s maddeningly frenetic trying to swim when it’s sunny like this, weaving in and out of the bodies, having to change direction last minute to avoid collisions with those who can’t swim straight, trying to swim at your own pace and not get in the way of others, constantly sighting.

But I don’t mind. I am biding my time for two perfect lengths.

The pool’s early morning session finishes at 9.30am: the whistle is blown and the pool is cleared. The doors have been locked and everyone who has paid for a morning ticket has to leave. Bags are packed up, and slowly the early morning crowd disappears off ready to face the day. But season ticket holders can stay for the next session. So we sit, chat, or drink coffee, in our costumes, waiting. Waiting.

For half an hour the lifeguards tidy up, getting ready for the real day’s work to begin. Sometimes they swim a few lengths. At 10am the shutter will be rolled up again to let a fresh batch of lido daytrippers in.

But, for those of us who have managed to get here before 9.00am... For those of us who were already in before the shutters rolled down. For those of us who have sat in that enforced break, patiently watching the lifeguards go about their duty, for those of us who have watched the hands creep round the weathered face of the clock beside the pool. 9.50am... 9.55am… I adjust my goggles again. 9.57am. Watch the lifeguards ready to give the nod that swimming can resume again. 9.59am, take position by my favourite spot in the pool. I sit on the edge, dangling feet in to the water.

10.00am. The pool is empty, sparkling, glorious, breathetaking. The water is flat as a sheet, the sky is the bluest of blue, the sun shines brilliantly. I slip in. Only me, perhaps one other swimmer, and the water, the sun, the sky, the sparkles and the pool stretching out in front. Two perfect lengths of utter unadulterated, uninterrupted, shockingly beautiful bliss. Of the dazzling happiness of a pool and the sun and the sky to myself.

By the time I’ve swum to the deep end and and I’m on my way back down to the shallow end, I see the next batch of swimmers coming through the doors excitedly: beach towels and balls, picnic hampers, sun cream, parasols. A fresh batch of triathletes arrive and tug on wetsuits, reset watches and look serious. More and more swimmers jump in the water and start swimming until those two perfect lengths are a distant memory.

Until tomorrow of course.

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