Serpentine Lido is open between May to September (if you want to visit it this year, get down there by 12 September), and it is one of the best value days out have I have had on this voyage of discovery round London. It does require you to wear a swimming costume in public, which in my case was preceded by a quick wrestle with my inner demons and five days of the Atkins diet.
Zim, my marvellous best London friend, is a bit of a regular at the Lido, and she invited me to come along.
“Don’t worry what time you come,” she said cheerfully. “I’ll be here.”
“It says it is open from 10am – 6pm.” I replied.
“Yes,” she said.
“Won’t you have gills if you spend between 10-6 in a Lido?”
“Already got them,” she said. “See you when I see you.”
I love Zim.
I got there around 3:30. Had I got there at 4, it would have been slightly cheaper, £3.50, as it was it cost £4. Cheap it may be, luxurious it ain’t. The changing rooms are limited both in number and size. There are secure storage facilities (a returnable 20p), and there’s a (cold) shower by the Lido to rinse off. To get there you go from Knightsbridge tube station, walk up Serpentine Passage to Hyde Park, continue until you hit the Serpentine, turn LEFT (you spend ages wandering around otherwise, seeing people feeding Harrods bread to the ducks), go inside the Lido building, pay your £4, get changed, walk upstairs and out past the paddling pool, and down the stairs to the Lido itself. There you will find everyone else has got changed down on the beach and is sitting on the beach, chatting.
Now, my biggest reservation about going to the Lido by far was the idea of getting my bulk out. I have been actively been avoiding swimming and sunbathing for years, even on holiday. So the prospect of donning my swimming cossie did bring me out into a cold sweat. The thing that got me through this was the idea that, as this is Britain, I would be surrounded by other rubenesque people. This was not so. Everyone else was decidedly thin and athletic in build. By rights, I should have felt like Orca the whale, but bizarrely, I didn’t. One or two looked at me slightly oddly because I was striding towards the Lido wearing a swimming cossie and carrying my towel and nothing else (which was a bad idea because I wouldn’t be able to buy tea and snacks). But nobody at all looked revolted at my well covered frame or even the various spots and carbuncles on it.
It is not a swimming pool, you see, it is a Lido, and the two things are very different. A swimming pool is a chlorine filled place designed for enthusiastic exercise. A Lido is a slightly more chilled out affair, especially on a glorious summer’s day. It is a place where real Londoners go to commune with Mother Nature. They swim in freezing cold waters devoid of chlorine and full of brown mud and the occasional duck feather. Once in, one is encouraged to swim because the lake floor is suspiciously slimy and unstable. In the main the waters are shallow enough for an adult to stand on. Getting in for the first timer is a decidedly touch and go affair, dominated (in my case) by girlish screams and millimetre by millimetre exposure to the frosty waters. I imagine I looked rather like the launch of the Queen Mary, whereas the regulars splash in without a flinch, and set to swimming forthwith, declaring how lovely the waters are when you get used to it.
Eventually, I set to swimming too, and went slowly back and forth from end to end four times, using a breast stroke/ doggy paddle mash-up which would have brought my sports teacher out into a cold sweat. Yet with no practice at all, I swam about 400 metres, which when you consider how hard it was for me to achieve my 5 metre badge was no mean feat. Reader, I was proud of myself, and arms and legs wobbling, I dragged myself from the icy waters. I then set about the real business of the Lido: sitting about and chatting.
Zim had very kindly laid in a sun lounger and cup of tea (tea cost about £2, sun lounger £3), and she lent me some sun cream and her copy of the Observer. She introduced me to her friend Chris, who she has been chatting with at the Lido for some years. We sat and chuckled about nothing in particular, when a slightly podgy gentleman came up to us. Zim started reading her paper intently, and looked away.
“Hello ladies. My name is (anon) and I’m nearly 40. Can I ask if you’re having a nice time please?”
“I’m having a fabulous time.” (Unless I’m actually having root canal work, I always say I’m having a fabulous time).
“Can I ask what your name is please?”
“Doris,” I said firmly.
“Are you single, and how old are you Doris?”
“I’m married, and about the same as you thanks.”
“Oh. Are you happily married, Doris?”
“Ecstatically,” I said firmly.
There was a momentary pause. “Yes, you’ve got a ring… What’s your friend’s name Doris?”
“Ummm… Geraldine,” I replied.
“And is Geraldine married, Doris?”
I paused, not knowing whether to tell a lie.
“Oh, for f***’s sake, yes, I’m married”, said Zim, from behind the Observer.
“Oh. And how old are you Geraldine?”
“Erm, I don’t want to discuss it thanks,” said her paper, rustling peevishly.
There was a longer pause. Things had not gone as our Lothario had hoped. “Oh well… I hope I didn’t upset you Doris.” I confirmed he hadn’t, and wandered around to his next dating opportunity on the Lido. Chris and Zim, peoplewatchers-in-chief, chuckled between themselves amiably. Between them, he had steadily worked his way around every female in the place.
Serpentine Lido is a bit like Britain itself. It doesn’t look much to be honest, and certainly much smaller than I would thought it would be, given it is the largest swimming available area available to Londoners at 110 foot. Manmade piece of nature it might be, but it is an oddly marvellous place. London is one of the most vibrant and busiest cities on earth, but it has a bit of a doze at the Lido, before drinking tea out of a paper cup and chatting about nothing in particular. As I packed up to go, Chris asked if I would go again. Despite my hatred of physical activity, the great outdoors and being seen in a swimming cossie, I said yes without hesitation.