The Serpentine Swimming Club – which meets every morning of the year in Hyde Park – epitomises a certain sort of Englishness. Eccentric, self-organising, understated and self-conscious, the sight of its swimmers ploughing the green water is a quintessential detail of London life. Formed with typical mid-Victorian zeal in 1863, the Club represents amateurism – in the sense of shared love of a pursuit – in its purest form. Membership is open to anyone willing to sign a brief disclaimer and obey a phlegmatic set of guidelines. The only real cardinal sin is Swimming Outside Designated Times, which would bring the club into conflict with the ruling authority of the Royal Parks. Privileges include access to a cup of tea, a shared changing room, and not much else.
Over a period of three hours, the widest cross-section of Londoners strip down to their essentials. Literal and figurative sang-froid is the keynote. Event swimmers make glancing references to their weekend conquests and discuss the finer details of their anti-chafing strategies, while others haul on trunks bought on the last holiday. The professions appear in waves, starting with the bankers and finishing with the writers. Talk in the changing room ebbs and flows, with water temperature replacing the weather as the surest common ground. Politics – and anything else that risks disturbing the esprit-de-corps – are best avoided (after all, what could be more serious than swimming itself?). In an era where shared spaces are viewed as inherently sexualised, the experience is about as un-erotic as an Irish farming conference.
Slipping out to cross the lakeside promenade – swim-suited but still dry – is the most concentrated moment of awkwardness, leaving you open to greetings of fully-clad members of the public. But the water is a release. During the best season – now – it is astringent without being shocking. For the first ten strokes, you think of nothing else. The smell is stark and reviving; clean yet shot through with traces of flora and fauna. Since the Olympics – when the bowl of Serpentine was treated to allow for its use in the competition – the water has stayed fresher longer into the summer.
There is something primordial about the water’s-eye view of London. You are lower than the dog walkers and early tourists, yet can see further along the lake; towards where the Houses of Parliament and an arc of the London Eye break incongruously through the tree line. On a sunny day, the low arches of the Serpentine Bridge are lit spectacularly by the morning sun, their undersides painted by reflections. Across on the north shore, dust trails rise from morning horse-riders. True to the club’s minimalist organising principals, the “pen” of buoys does not apply (it instead represents the border of the daytime lido). This means freedom to cast out towards the bridge, and become the unspoken counterpart to the cafe customers lining the shore. The further from dry land, the more dead-pan the “good morning” you receive passing a fellow member. Swimming with a friend provides a natural pacemaker, and heads off the temptation to get out too soon. The real test of when you should get out is when any sense of cold is long forgotten, and you feel you could swim forever.
You emerge from the water with your senses sparkling and self-consciousness forgotten to stride purposefully across the tarmac like Byron fresh from the Hellespont (it’s no coincidence that machismo and mental clarity coincide in both Romantic poetry and open-water swimming). The changing-room patter which had grated on your earlier self is now the most natural thing in the world; and the small population of dogs and bicycles grouped around the door feel positively homely. You pull away on your bike full of Spartan enthusiasm for the day, stripped of mental chaff, with your body still lean from the cold. After a few mornings of the new season, your first thought on waking is not coffee but the waiting water. In a world which rushes to offer ever more complicated ways to optimise body and spirit, a morning swim remains hands-down the best life hack of them all.