John Weller and Lola Culsán, passionate swimmers and authors of guidebook Outdoor Swimming London, share ten of their favourite open-air swimming spots, all a short train journey (or long cycle ride) from London.
Grandiose and gorgeous. A classic example of 1930s lido architecture. The magnificent six-lane 50m heated pool is set in landscaped grounds surrounded by weeping willows and pine trees. There’s plenty of grass to stretch out on. The clear blue water sparkles in the Surrey sunshine. This is outdoor swimming at its absolute finest. The pool is deep in the middle and shallow at either end. There are steps with handrails and a hoist available for swimmers with disabilities. There is level access to the pool and there are accessible changing rooms and toilets.
We enjoyed slow lengths in the wide lanes. A toddler pool has activity installations to keep the smaller people entertained; big, twisting water slides will keep the bigger kids hooked for hours. Expect a relaxed local atmosphere with friendly and helpful staff. Wooden poolside lockers, changing rooms and showers add to the vintage charm. A small kiosk serves hot and cold drinks and snacks and a larger outlet selling Mexican food is open on busy days. Guildford Lido launched winter swimming at the end of the 2021 summer season. At nearby Dapdune Wharf, we visited the riverside tea rooms, bookshop and canal museum.
Getting there: Waterloo to London Road (50 mins) + 0.7-mile walk (15 mins).
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Wycombe Rye Lido
Wonderful Wycombe Rye Lido. With a 33m heated pool, and grass and terraced sunbathing areas, you could spend the perfect summer day here – or a well-spent winter day. Check out the atmospheric underwater lights when the sun goes down. There is a relaxed vibe around the pool, which has tiered steps on one side for watchful parents to chat and drink coffee, and a 15m shallow toddler pool on the other. We swam during the family session and enjoyed the sound of children laughing and playing in the water.
There are clean, modern, accessible changing rooms and toilets in the new building and a ramp to access the pool. An exercise gym, cycle studio and room for classes are also available. Visit the Lido Café or relax on the grassy meadow by the picnic benches and wildflowers. The lifeguards were friendly and welcoming. Grade II-listed Wycombe Lido is open all year.
Getting there: Marylebone to High Wycombe (30 mins) + 1-mile walk (20 mins)
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At the edge of thousand-acre Bushy Park, home to herds of red and fallow deer, perches Hampton Pool. Originally conceived to float in the Thames, the lido was built in 1922 as an unheated swimming pool. Closed in 1981, the pool was refurbished, heated and reopened in 1985 following a campaign against its demolition by a local community- action group. After a very satisfying swim, we purchased coffee from the Sun Deck Café and watched all the action below from the rooftop sun terrace. Hampton Pool is run by a registered charity. We found staff helpful and there was a friendly vibe from other swimmers. Summer picnic concerts are held at the pool and there is a Poolside Swim and BBQ Club that holds evening member sessions and runs fundraising events. Hampton Pool is open 365 days of the year. There is level access to the pool; a poolside mechanical chair hoist provides access for customers with disabilities; and the shallow steps have handrails. There are also accessible toilets and changing rooms. Nearby is Hampton Court Palace, the former pied-à-terre of Henry Tudor.
Getting there: Waterloo to Hampton Station (40 mins) + 0.7-mile walk (15 mins).
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Thames Lido, Reading
Thames Lido is an Edwardian water palace a length or two from the river. The pool has an interesting history. Opening in 1902 as the Ladies’ Swimming Bath, it was built to provide Edwardian women a place to bathe in privacy. The lido was originally fed from the Thames, converting to a mains water supply in the 1950s. The pool was closed to the public in 1974 and lay derelict for many years. Following a public campaign, the outdoor pool and surrounding buildings were given Grade II-listed status. A careful restoration project took place, and in October 2017 the pool reopened.
As we sat in the hot tub, soaking up the local history, the style of the architecture reminded us of Shakespeare’s Globe, another unique Thameside venue. The lido is open seven days a week to members and non-members for swimming, sauna and hot tub. Children are welcome between 2pm and 4pm. Please check the website for times and bookings. Spas, massages and lido packages are available. The poolside restaurant and tapas bar have an authentic Spanish and Mediterranean flavour. The pool, saunas, hot tub and restaurant are all on ground level, as well as an accessible changing room for people with disabilities.
Getting there: Paddington to Reading (25 mins) + 10 mins walk.
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Denham Waterski Club
Denham Waterski Club did not disappoint, the superb Scandinavian log clubhouse, changing facilities, bar and spacious lakeside decking area give the early evening swimming session a warm, friendly feel. The water was lovely to swim in and the experience of completing the 1km loop was inspiring, with coots swimming alongside. On climbing out, we were pulled by a strong aroma towards a purpose-built shack supplying burgers and sausages. Veggie options and decent-size portions of chips were available.
The centre has sole use of the lake and a balanced programme of outdoor swimming and waterskiing. Open- water swimming lessons are available for both adults and children. The changing rooms were friendly and warm. Someone was always nearby to help with the ‘wetsuit wriggle’ and a bottle of washing-up liquid was on the terrace if there were any wetsuit malfunctions. You must be a member of NOWCA to book onto the sessions. The swim was well worth the journey from London, so put a dip at Denham into your diary. Currently seasonal, check website.
Getting there: Add a cycle ride adventure to your swim, follow the Grand Union Canal Walk for 25 miles from Camden Town.
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Luxborough Lakes, Chigwell
We took a trip to the far-eastern end of the Central Line one chilly November morning with our dear friend Kasia: What I love about London is that when you think you are done, a new thing pops up. The journey was easy; we got lost a bit on the way, but this added more spice to the excursion. The lake was beautiful and the big sky and open space filled me with joy. The hospitality and welcome that the manager Dermott provided was friendly and touching. There was a huge fire burning, amplifying the lake with vibrant orange shades. Surrounding the fire were people preparing to swim and others who had already been in, sipping hot drinks bought from the onsite café. The water was clear, cold and refreshing, releasing my energy; the fire was toasty and relaxed my spirit. I felt like a Scout in Poland again, so excited that something so enchanting had appeared in my life. Within minutes I made new friends and had easy-going conversations with like-minded Londoners, all with different accents but the same smiles and joyful energy. Here comes to my mind Albert Camus’ words: “In the midst of winter, I found… within me, an invincible summer.” Check Facebook for opening times.
Getting there: Roding Valley (Central Line) + 1-mile walk (15 mins) Address: Luxborough Lakes, Chigwell IG7 5DF.
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Herts Young Mariners’ Base, Cheshunt
Lying parallel to the Lee Navigation in Cheshunt, this swimming and outdoor activity centre venue did not disappoint. With modern, accessible changing facilities and committed and friendly staff, the Herts Young Mariners’ Base has a community feel and is well-known and much loved in the Broxbourne and wider Hertfordshire area. Your choice of a 200m or 350m swim loop. Morning and evening sessions run throughout the year, as well as occasional special events like the Christmas Swim and the Harvest Moon Night Swim. As we trod water at the furthest buoy and looked across the lake, the harvest moon glow-sticks looked like dragonflies dancing deftly on the smooth water. Mugs of steaming hot chocolate were ready as swimmers gathered after their swims. The sound of laughter could be heard ringing out across the lake from the jetty and clubhouse. A healthy mixture of suits, skins, lap timers and recreational swimmers. Access to the water is via a metal-runged ladder or a concrete slipway. Accessible toilets and changing rooms in the clubhouse.
Getting there: Liverpool Street to Cheshunt (25 mins) + 100m walk (2 mins).
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Pangbourne Meadows, Berkshire
An exquisite stretch of the Thames Path, flanked by purple loosestrife and towering bulrushes. You’ll find a number of river beaches and places to access the Thames between Pangbourne and Purley-on-Thames, as well as grassy banks to rest and picnic. Always check your exit point before committing yourself and look out for boats, swans and geese. We have enjoyed many pleasurable swims here on dreamy sunny afternoons and, like Mole of Wind in the Willows, ‘entered into the joy of running water’. Author Kenneth Grahame lived in Pangbourne and it is said that the band Led Zeppelin was conceived here after Jimmy Page bought a boathouse on the river. Dine at the ‘quaint little’ Swan Inn (Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome), a seventeenth-century pub which overlooks the river. If you fancy joining up with a wild-swimming group, look up ‘West Berkshire Open Water Swimmers’ on Facebook.
Getting there: Paddington to Pangbourne Station (35 mins) + 1-mile walk downstream along Thames Path (20 mins); GPS: 51.3985, -0.3365.
Great Fosters Hotel and Spa, Egham
As we explored the 50 acres of landscaped gardens of the former Jacobean manor house, we opened an unassuming wooden gate that revealed six steps leading up to a 1920s Art Deco pool. We thought we had discovered Frances Hodgson Burnett’s secret swimming pool to match her secret garden. Recently refurbished, the heated pool is 20m by 10m and open from May to September for a relaxed dip.
Stylish sun loungers and parasols adorn the poolside and the excellent ‘Day by the Pool’ deal included a tote bag of goodies, lunch and a glass of bubbly. We had great sushi and a delicious salad. A small bar serves drinks and a pool menu and the staff were friendly and attentive. After lunch, we took a stroll around the extensive gardens, which include a number of sculptures. A highlight was the ‘Drake sundial’, which historians suggest may have been donated by Sir Francis Drake and which is believed to date back to 1585.
Getting there: Waterloo to Egham (40 mins) + 1-mile taxi ride (5 mins). Free on-site parking.
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Albany Reach, Thames Ditton
Quiet riverside beach with a gentle slope into the water. Please be careful as the current can be strong here. Also keep an eye out for passing boats and surf hydrofoils. The meadow overlooks Hampton Court Palace across the river and is a fine place to spend a family afternoon: the kids will love splashing about in the shallows. Walk a bit further along Albany Reach to discover Palace Beach, which is also great for swimming. Please keep the local residents happy and dispose of your rubbish responsibly. Paddle Up lists Albany Reach as one of the top-10 places on the Thames to launch your paddle-board (paddleup.co.uk). If you arrive by boat at Hampton Court Landing Stage, you’ll see another narrow beach where you can swim from. Hampton Court Palace, home of Henry Tudor, overlooks the Thames here. Come and pay homage to the gout-ridden lunatic who murdered two of his six wives.
Getting there: Waterloo to Thames Ditton (35 mins) + 0.5-mile walk (10 mins). Address: Albany Reach Park, Aragon Ave, Thames Ditton, KT7 0PY.