London – Six Star Swimming

Swimming pools are usually given one to five stars, but The Serpentine in Hyde Park, a short walk from Lancaster Gate London Underground Station, is six star. Story Jessica Adams.

The Serpentine Lido is not a chlorine-treated, turquoise pool. It is, however, an easy walk from Lancaster Gate tube (walk across the road to Hyde Park and follow the water) and once you’ve paid £4.80 and laid down $£5 for a refundable locker, you’re in. The park itself is 450 acres and was where King Henry VIII hunted deer in 1536 and where Princess Diana lived, at one end, in Kensington Palace.

Peter Pan’s Pool

J.M. Barrie used to hand out a Peter Pan cup to serious swimmers here, and swam here himself. He wrote, “The Serpentine is a lovely lake, and there is a drowned forest at the bottom of it. If you peer over the edge you can see the trees all growing upside down, and they say that at night there are also drowned stars in it. If so, Peter Pan sees them when he is sailing across the lake in the Thrush’s Nest. A small part only of the Serpentine is in the Gardens, for soon it passes beneath a bridge to far away where the island is on which all the birds are born that become baby boys and girls. No one who is human, except Peter Pan (and he is only half human), can land on the island, but you may write what you want (boy or girl, dark or fair) on a piece of paper, and then twist it into the shape of a boat and slip it into the water, and it reaches Peter Pan’s island after dark.” This illustration, from Barrie’s work, shows the magic and mystery of the Serpentine and you can still see the famous bridge today, as you paddle up and down.




The Secret History of the Serpentine Lido 

Most visitors to Hyde Park imagine that they are swimming in some branch of the Thames, but when King Henry VIII created the place for hunting – there was no water.

The Serpentine, actually a huge artificial lake, was created by Queen Caroline in 1733. Today, this is where you swim, in a cordoned-off section with its own change rooms. Don’t be surprised if ducks turn up in the water too – and there are no roped-off lanes. There are no showers inside the tiny women’s change room – instead, you just stand under an outdoor shower with everyone else to rinse off. 

The idea of a public outdoor pool in inner-city London was the brainchild of a Labour government minister (below) who also made sure that women were legally able to swim, along with men. (They risked arrest before). They called it Lansbury’s Lido, after him, and it opened on 24th July 1930. This is a still from a British Pathe newsreel of the time.



Swimming With The Queen’s Physician and Canada Geese

British wild swimming is now fashionable but the Serpentine Swimming Club have been jumping into the water since 1864, famously racing on Christmas Day. In 1904, Barrie donated the cup and at 9.00am every Christmas morning, spectators and supporters still turn up with a thermos and hip flasks of brandy to watch members brave the freezing cold water.

The American Swimmer magazine noted in 1923 that the club was made up of all sorts  “The elderly gentleman keeps a sweet shop in Maida Vale, the one next to him is a tobacconist in High Holborn. Over the way is a waiter from the Trocadero Restaurant. Down a bit you see the physician to the Queen.”

If you don’t want to join the club, then as a casual visitor you can swim from 10:00 am – 6:00 pm (last entry 5:30pm) every  in June, July and August. During May the Serpentine Lido is only open on weekends and Bank Holidays.



The Beatles, Princess Diana and The Serpentine

Part of the six-star experience is the legendary park itself, as beautiful swans, Canada geese and moorhens line the way when you walk along the waterside from Lancaster Gate station to the pool itself. The Lido Cafe Bar is adjacent and has waterside tables. There is a special separate area for children and a family ticket for two adults and two children is £12.00. 

The pool itself is 30m x 100m so there is plenty of room even on a hot August Saturday at peak time. The water is tested weekly to ensure quality and safety and in fact, this is where the London 2012 Olympics held some events.

It comes from  from springs, surface water, and boreholes (at the Princess Diana Fountain and the pretty Italian Gardens, opposite Lancaster Gate tube station as you enter the park.)

Diana’s fountain is thus the starriest part of the Serpentine swimming experience. She is, of course, always linked to Hyde Park (and this part of it) because of her famous ‘up yours’ black dress, worn to the Serpentine Gallery summer party hosted by Vanity Fair in 1994 – designed by Christina Stambolian. Why up yours? Because, on the same night, on ITV, Prince Charles admitted adultery to Jonathan Dimbleby.

Alan Titmuss, past president of the club used to drive into London from Ascot every Saturday to swim. He vouched for the fact that water in the Serpentine, ranged from 32 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit; but famously said, ”Water, like wine, is best slightly chilled,” he said. He would be pleased to know that people still order wine next to the pool today.

The Beatles were photographed here by Marvin Lichtner from Time magazine on 18th May 1967 before the press party for the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For more photographs of The Beatles at The Serpentine, visit the best history site on the web – Beatles Archive, from which this image comes.

All other images: Pinterest




























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