The rain starts as I’m parking up. Inside the lido the water is steely. The silver pool liner, that reportedly gives off David Hockney white lines in the sunshine, is flat to reflect the steady dark sky but the water still glitters.
The pool is long and dark and cold. It feels like water contained within walls, bricked in by humans, should never be as cold as that which crashes against cliffs, makes a home for sea creatures or lies mellow and frigid in a lake. And yet the chill is biting. I can’t put my head under for a full length, but when I do I’m glad for it – that silvery pool liner I’ve heard so much about lends the underwater world a new dimension. Dark silver holes in steady grey metal stretch away into the distance, orienting the swimmer in place and time. It deepens the shading so that you would think that if you were to lift a handful the fluid would be blue in your palm. The blue is different to that of other lidos. The painted aqua and plastic turquoise of a pool liner are a summer holiday, sunshine colour but this – this is the deep promising blue of contained energy and continual sustenance. People swim here all year round.
There are poems pinned up on the walls of the changing rooms and a cork board advertising an end of season party. The rusty brick walls are cut in half with a long line of snapshots, the pool and its visitors throughout the seasons. In the cafe there are photos of swimmers that were finalists in the ‘Portrait of Britain’ competition. The people are what you feel here – a sense of community and of the love that’s held for this place.
There’s a variety of people in the water, some ploughing up and down, some splashing and shrieking. It feels friendly and the water feels rich and clear and clean. The liner makes it feel purer than it normally does in a lido.
The rain grows heavier and my hands start to form claws, my joints tightening against the cold. I get out and drink tea looking over the still surface and the steady up-and-down progress of the swimmers still in the water. Afterwards, I walk around Hampstead Heath and up Parliament Hill itself to look out over all of London, so tiny behind the green.