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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A London swimmer's stolen summer days in the silky socialist waters of the Serpentine

It has become a bit of a ritual, but a summer is not a summer for me without at least one hot, sunny, stolen day at the Serpentine Lido in Hyde Park.

I went three days ago, and the magic was still there, as strong as ever. As strong as it was, perhaps, way back in  1930 when the so-called "Lansbury's Lido" opened in Hyde Park, allowing mixed-sex open-air  bathing in the Serpentine for the first time.  See for yourself in this amazing footage from British Pathé.

George Lansbury, the radical socialist,  pacifist,  reformer, campaigning MP and Labour Party Leader (1932-35), who was determined to give ordinary Londoners a taste of the open-air bathing pleasures available at the seaside, right here in the centre of the richest, most royal area of the capital city.

I first went back in the mid-1970s, and kept going through to the mid 1980s. I remember being there on the day of Live Aid - a hot Saturday afternoon, I was listening on the walkman radio. You could feel the vibrations from Wembley in the hot air.

At the time the place was under threat, there were constant health scares about the water , and people generally grimaced when you said you'd been swimming there: "Oh, how could you, it's all slimy and stinky and all those old men in speedos…."

Back in those days I was a 27 year old in Speedos, and yes, there was a bit of slime under the toes as you inched your way down the slope into those greeny-brown waters. But it was benign slime,  a soft layer of weedy mud. This was real water - the Serpentine is fed by natural springs and the submerged River Westbourne - and it felt totally different to the chlorinated refined stuff you get in swimming pools. It feels soft and silky, it feels gorgeous against the skin

The crowds who went down to the Serpentine in those hot summers of 80 and 81 were very different to the diehard members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, the ones who did lengths every morning, every day of the year, before going off to work.

The "father" of the Lido, George Lansbury,
headed a successful campaign in the
 1920s to get affordable open air swimming for
 all Londoners in the heart of the city.
The great thing here was we could all co-exist - the serious swimmers and the hedonistically sun-worshippers, the narcissists and the creative skivers, taking a few hours out from their office jobs. God, how we all love that place, that little Oasis in the centre of the metropolis.

I would go with a book, a bottle of water, something to eat, Palmer's cocoa butter skin cream and plenty of cigarettes. I would lie there and wait, and sure enough before long the spaces next to me would be filled with all manny of chambering young and not-so-young swimmers. There was a strange community about the place - as if we all belonged to some slightly secret club.

We were the lazy ones, the sun-addicts, young and old, we mixed with the hordes of Spanish and Californian and Brazilian and Italian and South African and Australian backpacker tourists who found the place a bit like home from home.

The Serpentine Lido has so much going for it - a little bit of paradise, saved for the people of London and the world by idealistic socialists of the early 20th century.

The place still has that democratic feel. The entry fee is less than for most of the stingy local authority pools around the outer boroughs - and if the weather's good you get the feeling of being in some private club, soaking up the sun in your skimpy swimming gear as the crazy centre of capitalism goes about its greedy business a few hundred yards away.

Although, as one very long-term fan of the Lido  - she had been coming here since 1958 - told me,  they built the  Lido on the wrong side of the lake. "it's north facing, so to get the best of the afternoon sun you have to  turn away from the water," she laughed.

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