Winter swimming in Stoke Newington West Resevoir

On Saturday mornings most people prefer a lie in. But this Saturday I chose to wake early and head for an outdoor swim instead, despite the air temperature being a bitter 4 degrees.

As I changed into my wetsuit at Stoke Newington West Resevoir I wondered if I was completely mad. But there were a few of us in the changing room, so it made me feel at least less alone in my madness. We chatted – as outdoor swimmers always do. You already share a bond which brings you together and in turn separates you from others (your friends and colleagues tell you that you are crazy).

Once I was zipped up it was time to head outside onto the decking. I jumped up and down for a while to warm up and raise my heart rate, making myself laugh at how strange my neoprene self must have looked. Then I slowly stepped down the ramp until I was knee deep in cold. I looked out over the grey expanse of water as the chill seeped in through my wetsuit. Buoys marked the distance I would swim and looked further away than normal on this grey morning. Life guards sat in kayaks in the middle of the water, plump in their coats, life jackets and scarves. On the other side of the reservoir tall blocks of flats reminded me I was in the city, making stepping out into the calm water even more surreal.

I ducked to fill my wetsuit with water, making sure it ran all the way through, swearing loudly as the cold spread over my body.

Somehow I found my courage inside me and pulled it over me like a warm blanket, shielding me from the shock of the water as I launched off and started a quick breast stroke. My wetsuit socks kept my feet warm so it was only my hands and face as I ducked under that felt bitterly cold. The water gripped my cheeks and forehead and squeezed.

Beneath me the water was inky blue and all I could see were my pale hands and an occasional autumn leaf. It made me feel brave that the unknown beneath me doesn’t worry me any more. I have grown to accept that beneath is beneath, and I am above, pulling myself along the surface. Whatever is down there is down there, but the unknown doesn’t have to scare you if you don’t let it.

I swam to the first buoy, then the next, a mix of breast stroke (watching the sky, the buildings beyond and the surface of the water) and front crawl (seeing the body of one of the few other swimmers as they overtook me, black neoprene body and glowing bright white feet and hands).

Half-way round a lifeguard shouted from his kayak to one of the swimmers ahead of me, “How are you? Still got your fingers and toes?”

“Let me check,” said the swimmer, reaching under the water for his toes, “Yes, still got my toes.”

He waved his hands, treading water, “Yes, still got my fingers!”

As I swam I slowly warmed up, feeling invigorated. It was the latest in the season I have ever swum, and there were only a few of us in the quiet water. When I clambered out after completing the loop I felt like I had conquered the morning. While others lay warm in their beds I was dripping wet and cold, but felt like I had discovered a secret – something that everyone tucked up inside was missing. The cold water shook me awake and made me think, “this is what it means to be alive.”

Stoke Newington West Reservoir

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My alarm went off at 6 on Saturday morning and I silenced it quickly, not wanting to disturb my sleeping flatmates. Half-asleep I pulled myself out of bed and reached for my swimming bag and wetsuit.

Stoke Newington West Reservoir is a short bus journey from where I live. The bus was quiet: outside the window I saw a few joggers, a dog walker and a smartly dressed woman walking bare foot down the high street, carrying her heels in her hand.

I was heading to the reservoir for an induction into open water swimming. I feel something of a cliché jumping onto the growing trend for swimming outside, but there is a reason why it is so popular. Being outdoors and in the water just feels right. It knocks me for a moment off the treadmill of life (work, cook dinner, sleep, repeat) and makes me feel completely awake (even at 6 on a Saturday). Particularly as someone who lives in London, finding moments to be among nature feels not just desirable, but essential for my soul. Slipping into cool water and swimming beneath the sky reminds me of the simple sweetness of being human.

IMG_9343I arrived into a cavernous reception area that looked out onto the water. It was a grey day but the perfectly still expanse of water still looked incredibly inviting.

The reception was already full of people. This made me extremely happy. I wasn’t the only one mad enough to wake up so early on a Saturday to come and swim in a cold reservoir: there were loads of us.

I might be biased (because I like to consider myself one of them and because I don’t do any other sport), but swimmers are the friendliest people. Unlike other public places in London where conversation with strangers is unusual, I always strike up conversations when swimming, sometimes in the water and sometimes while half-naked in the changing room.

There was a group of us who were there for the induction, and the instructor took us through the safety information and showed us around the facilities. Then it was time to wetsuit up and get into the water.

I love wearing my wetsuit. It feels hilarious. My arms hang stiffly by my side making me walk like a penguin. It takes ages to pull it on, and in the changing room I laughed with the group of women also doing the ‘wetsuit jump’ and twisting like contortionists to reach the zip at the back.

Standing on the side of the reservoir we looked not quite human, not quite fish. Together we walked down a pontoon and acclimatised to the water. We were instructed to ‘flush through’ our wetsuits, which I thought sounded very strange but just meant filling it up with water so the layer between you and the neoprene keeps you warm.

There were a few routes we could swim: the full 750m course, 200m or 400m. The 750m loop stretched away into the distance and I remembered what the instructor said about not pushing ourselves so went for the 400m as it was my first time.

After a few warm-up exercises (running on the spot in water makes me laugh) we were off. I love my local pool, but it felt wonderful to be outside and not constricted by the lanes and the pool’s short length. I swam, and then kept swimming. I felt strangely empowered as I swam – I was very aware of it being my arms and my legs making me move through the water. Go arms! Go legs!

Once I’d finished the loop I pulled myself out of the water, dripping and grinning.

IMG_9350The reservoir is a short walk from Clissold Park, one of my favourite parks in London, so after my swim I walked there and found a spot outside the café on the hill. I ordered a full English breakfast and ate it in the sun.

By now it was 9 but the park was still empty apart from runners and parents with small children. A group of girls played outside the cafe. One was dressed as ‘Batgirl’. Her cape billowed behind her as she ran up and down the hill. As I watched her I thought about how un-sporty I was for most of my life, and how up until a few years ago I could barely swim. When Batgirl stops wearing her cape I hope she still realises she can do anything that she wants to do.

http://www.better.org.uk/leisure/stoke-newington-west-reservoir-centre If you want to swim at Stoke Newington West Reservoir you must first book an induction.