There’s a lovely number by Loudon Wainwright III called ‘The Swimming Song’ that evokes the delights of bathing with both sharp wit and faux-naïf innocence. Kate and Anna McGarrigle covered it on their eponymous 1975 debut album — one of the all-time great records in my view, mixing folky exuberance and wrenching heartache in a manner that never seems to go stale — and in recent weeks I too have been singing ‘The Swimming Song’.
‘This summer I went swimming/ this summer I might have drowned/ But I held my breath and I kicked my feet/ and I moved my arms around,’ sang Loudon and the McGarrigles. To which my reply is, ‘Excellent news, guys, but how wimpish can you get?’ Swimming in summer is easy. In contrast, I, dear reader, have been swimming in an outdoor pool in the bitter depths of winter, often before sunrise with a sharp frost on the ground.
All this will sound wildly unlikely to anyone who knows me but I swear it is true. There is a single fact, however, that turns what would otherwise be cruel and unusual punishment into a rich and sensual pleasure: the pool is heated to 28 degrees centigrade (that’s a little over 82F in the old money). The steam rises from the waters, and, after taking the 12 freezing steps from the changing rooms, entering the pool is like climbing into a warm bath. Some of the hardier swimmers — and hardy swimmers are legion here — have been heard to complain that the water is too warm. They are wrong. It is just right. On the days when it drops to 26.5C, as it does occasionally, you really notice the difference.
The pool is in Hampton, on the edge of Bushy Park just round the corner from the house where the actor David Garrick used to live (he erected a splendid Temple to Shakespeare in his gardens by the Thames which survives to this day). Oddly enough, I learnt to swim at Hampton Pool with a lovely old man called Mr Maley who a generation earlier had taught my mother and Auntie Kay to swim. His technique was to strap a ring of corks round your waist, then drag you through the water with a pole with a hook on it. In those days the pool definitely wasn’t heated — I would emerge with uncontrollably chattering teeth, blue with cold — and the place was run by the local council.
As local authorities do, they decided to fill in the pool and develop the site but local residents fought a long and triumphant campaign, actually linking arms in front of the bulldozers to stop them coming in and destroying the place, according to ancient poolside lore. The council finally tired of the battle and handed the place over to the residents to run themselves, which they did for many years, though the day-to-day operation is now in the hands of the local YMCA.
Unlike the gym or jogging, both activities your obese ‘Olden but golden’ correspondent has tried and quickly tired of in the past, you can’t listen to music while swimming. I think I once saw a waterproof underwater Walkman or did I just dream it? I mean, where would you put the thing while swimming? Down your trunks?
But after listening to the babbling inanities of Sarah Kennedy on Radio Two on the way to the pool — there’s a woman who can witter for England — a bit of peace and quiet is more than welcome. Though swimming is actually surprisingly noisy, what with the splashing of the water and the grunts from the speedfreaks who go in for a violent crawl. Ever since my lessons with Mr Maley, I’d favoured a stately breaststroke myself, with my head held regally high above the water. At 52, however, amid all the hearties at Hampton, I’ve taken the plunge, invested in a pair of goggles and actually get my hair and face wet these days. You go a lot faster when you put your head in. Singing is not to be recommended I’ve found, unless you like the taste of chlorine, but it is possible to hum underwater, where it makes a pleasingly resonant sound in your head accompanied by the bubbles from your exhaled breath.
The perfect tune for humming purposes comes from another unfairly neglected Seventies album, which I recommend just as warmly as the McGarrigles’ debut, Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets (1973). This was his own first solo record following his departure from Roxy Music and, unlike his later ambient stuff that I’ve never quite got into, it offers a spectacular collision between glam rock and the wilder fringes of the avant-garde that still seems gloriously weird and exciting. The title, and indeed climactic, number, an instrumental with a hypnotic melody performed on bubbling ancient synthesisers, puts one in mind of great sex in a turbo-charged Jacuzzi. Unfortunately, that’s not among the services supplied at Hampton Pool so I just have to make do with a bowl of porridge on the sundeck after a celibate 30 lengths.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.