Writer and journalist Jenny Landreth talks about her favourite pools and why she prefers lidos to swimming in lakes and rivers
We first came across you from your excellent swimming blog, Swimming Round London (http://swimmingroundlondon.blogspot.co.uk/). How did that come about?
The blog was the first thing I’d written about swimming. I’d been a script editor for a long time and done some writing but I wanted to put some writing into the public sphere. As I love swimming I thought it would be a good idea to combine the two things. Also if you set yourself a public challenge you are more likely to do it. It gave me more of a reason to do it then if I was sitting in my study collating information privately.
What was the response to the blog like?
I got really good feedback straight away and I still get really good comments even though I haven’t updated it for ages because I was writing the book and then when I’d finished I wanted to swim for the sake of swimming rather than having a different head on. I think people still use it because it’s got a map on and people like to use it as a guide.
Where do you like to swim?
I swim at Tooting Bec Lido. I just like going there and do my lengths and having my social time there. I really like Parliament Hill Lido and train at Brockwell Lido too but their shallow ends are too shallow!
In terms of indoor pools, I went for a swim at Marshall Street Baths this week because I happened to be in town. I wanted to swim a couple of kilometres without worrying about the cold. It’s a beautiful pool. Just glorious. There was only me and one other guy in there and we both stopped at one point. I said to him ‘I love this pool, it’s really peaceful isn’t it’. He said ‘it’s really peaceful until people start talking to you’. I soon got the message, put my goggles back on and swam off!
I used to swim there years ago when I used to work in town before it was refurbished. It was a very scruffy, down at heel, a really collapsing, falling down building but I still loved it. I’m fairly below stairs and do llike scruffy places. I love Crystal Palace too. What a genius pool that is.
What were the worst places you visited for the blog?
Barnet Copthall was one of the worst I came across but there’s a whole slew of of 1970s pools that are quite similar to that. Archway Leisure Centre is particularly grim. It calls itself a swimming pool but there’s nowhere to really swim. There’s just a little box as part of a beach arrangement.
Are you a good swimmer yourself?
I’m fairly slow. I train once a week all year round to keep a level of fitness and in the summer I swim a bit more. I’m really a late adopter when it comes to swimming. I didn’t really take it seriously until I was in my mid 40s. Before that I swam head up breaststroke because I couldn’t find any swimming goggles that fitted my face and I hadn’t learned to swim freestyle.
I was never really a sporty person, I was more an arts and crafts type, but when I was in my 40s I started going regularly. And I thought I really wanted to have a crack at this front crawl business. It looks good. But I’m very uncoordinated. Physically I’m just a bit shit.
What do you think is the appeal of swimming?
I started when my children were both quite small and I think at that point it was a space where I could be something other than a mother and a wife because my husband has got a funny old job (he is a comedian). It’s somewhere I can be away from people saying ‘can you just do this, can you just do that’. In the middle of Tooting Bec Lido no one can really get you. For my mental health that was a saviour.
How did the book (Swimming London) come about?
It was the publisher’s idea to do something on the 50 best swimming spots and a couple of people pointed him in my direction. Obviously my blog is my personal take and I really enjoyed the scathing reviews. They are more fun to write.
But the book is very different. I really kicked up a stink at first because I thought he was clipping my wings. But looking at it now and the postiive responses I’ve had this is going to be something that is hopefully going to last. If you are acerbic it doesn’t ever give the places the opportuntity to change.
For the book I wanted to be more personal and celebratory. It’s fun to be rude whereas it’s much harder to be positive all the time, but I think it was a good decision in the end. If I was writing about the 50 best places and then slagging them off people would think it was a little strange.
You chose to feature private pools as well as public ones. Why was that?
I’m quite well connected by virtue of being old and having lived in London for a long time and knowing a real mix of people. My view was that if I can get into them than anyone can get into them. Most of the time I got in via friends. I snuck in.
But there were a few places I just couldn’t get into like the Chelsea Harbour Club and the Hurlingham Club which point blank refused to let me in even though I knew I was writing a book.
But there were some great private pools that I did feature like the Virgin pool in Repton which is a fantastic converted church. That is a really great pool. I grew up a Catholic and so swimming there so was my devilment. I really enjoyed that vaguely anarchic sense of swimming in a former church.
You’ve also featured some pools that have been recently restored?
Both Ironmonger Row and Kentish Town Baths in North London have been restored very well by Better (GLL). I think they’ve got a really good sensibility when it comes to these things. They don’t just strip everything out and make it uber contemporary. They do that thing that we all like – a mix of old and new – without the knackered old changing rooms.
What do you think about wild swimming? Do you swim much in open water, either in lakes, rivers or the sea?
I’m basically a bit of a coward. I prefer Lidos over the sea because I don’t feel that confident in my abilities and in my judgement to get in places where it’s safe. I do have issues about the fear of the deep and what’s down there too.
It’s a really common thing. I wrote about it on the Guardian website and I got loads of responses from people saying they’d been pulled out of the sea. But I do drive past lakes and think ‘that looks good I think I might jump in.’
Have you had any bad experiences in open water?
I was swimming once in Croatia on a SwimTrek holiday and had a complete panic attack. We were in really choppy sea and I was the slowest one in the group. I was behind everyone. I’m quite slender and it was really cold. I don’t have much fat.
Suddenly I couldn’t see anyone because of this swell. I had a complete freak out and was screaming in the water: ‘just get me out, get me out’. And this 19 year old Finnish national swimming champion got his little dinghy out and came out to me and hoiked me out under my arm pits. I wasn’t about to drown, but he was a very calm presence. I couldn’t raise my head for an hour. Suddenly everything about the sea became inordinately terrifying. Even talking about it now I can feel the angst in my chest, it was really flipping scary. That’s probably the nearest thing I’ve had to a terrifying experience.
But I got back in on the next 4.5Km swim and felt like a million dollars afterwards.
Swimming London by Jenny Landreth, published by Aurum Press, £12.99 paperback. All images: copyright Luisa Martelo