This morning I swam in the icy waters of Parliament Hill lido. To my surprise, I loved it.
It was the Outdoor Swimming Society’s annual festive dip. Two hundred people turned out, some newcomers like me, some regular outdoor swimmers, all nervous. Last year, the water temperature was 6 degrees. This year it was 0.1. The kids’ pool was completely frozen over and there was still a good covering of snow on the ground.
The atmosphere was friendly and festive. There was a band, hot drinks, and guest speakers. We were briefed, then got changed quickly and emerged shivering in swimming costumes (wetsuits would be cheating) and flipflops to protect our feet from the snow as we lined up for the plunge.
We all went together, on command. I dropped in gently from a crouching position. The water was up to my ribs but I quickly immersed myself and started swimming before I could change my mind.
Everything contracts on entry. We were told to breathe out as we got in because the sharp contraction of your ribcage makes breathing-in almost impossible. The cold quickly turned to numbness, then to electrical currents shooting at random up and down my limbs and spine.
I felt oddly calm and focused – breathe, keep moving, breathe, keep moving – in my own quiet little world amidst all the whooping and splashing.
The idea was to swim two widths of the pool (50 metres in total). At the turn around I reminded myself to pay attention to the sensation. The pain in my feet from standing on the snow had disappeared, replaced by a total lack of feeling. My hands were the same, my skin too. About half way back I noticed I’d slowed significantly, muscles simply ceasing up in the cold.
To get out, I had to use my arms to lift my leg up on to the side of the pool. Once out, I realised that I’d loved it, that strange feeling. It wasn’t cold, it was electricity, painful but not unpleasant. It was a feeling of tightness all over – every muscle fibre shortened, every pore firmly shut.
My hands were just pointless lumps. I could barely pick up my towel, and I had to hook my bag over my arm because they refused to grasp the strap. I followed advice and avoided a hot shower, instead quickly getting as many layers on as possible and trying to massage some feeling back in to my lifeless feet.
With a few layers on, the shivering started in powerful waves. I still didn’t really feel cold though, just numb. The cold came after, just a short phase I passed through on my way to being warm again. By that stage I had enough clothes on to fill a charity shop, a cup of tea in one hand and some booze in the other. My feet took about 45 minutes to thaw. The feet were definitely the worst bit. That’s where the cold really hurts.
I’ve felt strangely elated ever since and, judging by the post-dip mood, so did everyone else. We stood around chatting, drinking ginger wine and snaffling mince pies as fast as they could be handed out.
Some people do this every day. Even as we stood there congratulating ourselves on our bravery, there were a few plucky regulars matter-of-factly marching out of the changing rooms and diving in to the pool for a quick 10 minute swim. Most of them were sensibly wearing protective boots and gloves.
I will definitely do it again. I can see how people become addicted to cold water swimming. It leaves you feeling more alive with brighter skin and an irrepressible smile on your face.
The OSS will be doing a New Year’s Day swim in the Serpentine in Hyde Park. If I can face the duck poo with a hangover I might pop along.