Ashleigh Young reports on unexpected screaming and Arctic temperatures at Brockwell Lido’s Midwinter Swim
We were promised sunshine at 12 noon, just in time to kick off the annual midwinter swim at Brockwell Lido. Instead we get a glowering sky and one of those ice-picky breezes gouging across the water, firmly reminding us that it’s winter and no good pretending otherwise. Even the cheery Caribbean drummers under the poolside gazebo don’t fool anyone that it is, in fact, ridiculously cold.
After a garbled safety briefing through a loudspeaker – the gist, I think, is “tell us if you get cold” – the swimmers shuffle off to line up at the pool’s edge. Some of us are wearing woolly hats over our swim caps. Some are fully encased in wetsuits. The hardier ones are in Speedos or bikinis. I recognise a few fitness fanatics from the gym. There are even a few kids quivering behind their parents. I elbow them all aside to get to the front: for some reason I’m quite excited about all this. There’s an atmosphere of jollity and determination amongst the crowd. A man standing next to me has a grin that’s become an otherworldly rictus.
We’ve been warned by officials to enter the water slowly (“do not jump or dive!”) but a friend who swims year-round has advised me that the absolute worst thing you can do is go slow and/or hesitate. If you hesitate, your brain will take over, quickly and efficiently laying waste to your best laid plans. So I decide to enter the water by way of a good old-fashioned bomb.
The loudspeaker blurts: “3…2…1…” and madness is unleashed.
As soon as I hit the water something weird happens: I start screaming. The scream comes from somewhere ancient and primal. It’s a scream passed from our prehuman ancestors down through the ages. All around, I hear the same kind of screaming – a great ululation not of terror or pain but of sensation so overwhelming that a scream is the only possible response. Maybe this is what Beatlemania was all about? Bodies are flailing and flubbering. After the sensory shock, my entire body becomes numb. It’s as if I’ve been doused in liquid nitrogen. Even though I’d planned to breaststroke calmly from one side of the pool to the other, I’m dimly aware that my hands are clawing at the surface of the water and that my feet have curled in on themselves like a retired ballet dancer’s. My body is in mutiny. I try three times to haul it out of the pool. When my limbs finally obey, my skin floods with warmth. The air – once Arctic – now feels like heated thermal underwear. I’m pink as a newborn and filled with a strange desire to sing.
Like me, most swimmers have hurled themselves over the nearest wall, but a few superhuman souls are still paddling around happily. They’re not even screaming. These are the ones, I’m sure, who will tell you that regular winter swimming keeps you hale and hearty – that icy water is great for the heart, immune system, and bottom; that it kickstarts circulation, flushes out impurities, and revitalises a flagging libido. (It must be said, though, that all this depends on how healthy you are to begin with. If you’ve got a dodgy heart, jumping into an icy pool could finish you off.)
You don’t have to be a health nut, or any kind of nut, to take part in a midwinter swim. But you should be prepared to temporarily abandon all commonsense. I would recommend it as an excellent legal high. If nothing else, it’s a very good way of reminding ourselves – cossetted as we are by centrally heated buildings, down jackets, and fluffy earwarmers – what it feels like to be really, really, really uncomfortable.