From the green river banks of Essex, under more A12 bridges, to urban rivers, to east London pools – an architectural marvel, a popular lido, and a typical indoor pool – to tower block Hackney.
Brief explanations of the memories and significance of all the swim locations on Day 3 of my A12 swim journey (Roundups and charity info in post: A12 swim journey June 2016: I did it! https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/imogens-a12-swim-journey-june-2016-i-did-it/). This and the other posts were written in 2016 just before or after the swim journey and updated December 2022.
Retreat Farm campsite / Ulting
From the campsite it is just a short walk through fields to the public towpath on the River Chelmer. I plan to swim from here downstream to Ulting church, which is on the opposite bank. I swam from the churchyard with my friend Peter in October 2013, and it was surprisingly warm. There are prohibiting signs and strong feelings against swimming here from some involved with the church. I did so respectfully, which I’m sure is true of virtually everyone, but all sorts of wild claims have been made about the behaviour of swimmers.
I found this very convenient place to swim a couple of years ago by looking at Google satellite images and maps then checking it out on a short diversion from my way between London and Suffolk. There is a big lay by for parking near the river, nice shallow firm beaches to get in, fairly deep, slow moving water you can swim in all year round, and lovely poplars lining the river and beautiful meadows beside it. It’s very popular with walkers, boaters, runners and anglers.
On the other side of the lay by is Tri Farm, a small lake for outdoor swimming with a running track and cycle route. It looks lovely particularly at sunset.
Chelmer A12 bridge / Sandford Mill lock
In my search for places to swim literally under the A12, and having looked out of the car at this section of river for many years, I finally found my convoluted way there. You have to go through the back streets of the suburbs of Chelmsford to Sandford mill lock where there is a small amount of parking and walk down the towpath to where the A12 thunders over the river. I haven’t swum there yet, though have kayaked downriver a couple of locks and back.
This is a very recent find – another A12 bridge over the tiny River Wid, which you reach down a concrete track to a ford that doesn’t even have a bridge for walkers. There is just enough water for a shallow dip downstream. So far I have only paddled here.
Another A12 bridge and as yet unswum river, often seen from the car as I turn off the A12 to take the M11 towards Norfolk or Suffolk. I have found two ways to walk to it from parking in Preston Drive – one is down a nice footpath from the recreation ground at the corner of this road, and the other is to walk alongside the thundering A12. The latter is shorter. There isn’t a great deal of water in the summer, and there is a weir under the bridge, so I don’t know how this will go.
Old River Lea
This shouldn’t be confused with the River Lea navigation, which doesn’t look at all attractive. The old River Lea is clear and full of wildlife where it meanders alongside Hackney Marshes with its football pitches and kite flyers. The banks are lined with shepherd’s parsley at the moment, together with a few giant hogweed. Later there will be a profusion of Himalayan Balsam, hated by conservationists who say that it drives out other plants. My mum loved it for its colourful exuberance and the way that the seeds explode when they are ripe. I never had the chance to take her along the lovely riverside path, but I did take photographs of the blooms for her birthday card one year. I will swim downstream from just below White House bridge (apparently named after the house Dick Turpin lived in) to near the Hackney Marshes Centre. I’ve never swum here, but I know someone who has and lived to tell the tale.
London Aquatic Centre
This is the fantastic curved swimming centre designed by Zaha Hadid and built for the London Olympics, but now available for anyone to swim in at standard prices from about 6 am to 10 pm, (though not throughout the whole of this May because of an event). I have only swum there once and it is quite spectacular, particularly the main deep pool. Even if you don’t swim, you can pay and go into the spectators’ gallery where you are allowed to take photos and it is worth every penny for the view. I watched young children doing fantastically intricate dives into the very deep diving pool.
I avoided having anything to do with the Olympic Park for a long time, because I haven’t forgiven the authorities for the way they obliterated a community in the 100-year-old allotment site and destroyed a nature reserve. It was not just the fact that they did it: it was more the way that they used draconian and undemocratic powers and the way they treated the allotment gardeners (who still have not been given the replacement allotments within the park that they were promised). It certainly was not the greenest Olympics ever. A truly green development would have incorporated that wonderful slice of history and culture. However, I was taken for a walk there with a friend who lives locally, Dharmasakhya, and it is an interesting park to walk and cycle in, and I’m looking forward to when they open up the waterways to canoeists and kayakers.
Kings Hall Baths, Hackney
This is my local swimming pool, and I’ve been here many times over the years, both before and after renovation. It is looking a little tired and due for further renovation, but is well used. When I went recently it was full of children having lessons and having fun, and I joined in with them diving off the deep end, and even encouraged one young woman to dive the way I was taught. My mother was good at diving and taught me to dive the easy way, starting low over the water and then as you gain confidence standing taller. (I haven’t progressed to diving boards yet. There aren’t many around to practice from, even if I had the nerve.)
I remember walking up to the pool on hot sunny days when I worked in Hackney – there was just time to get there, have a swim and come back, by which time you felt hot again.
London Fields lido
I came here in the 80s when it was 10p to get in through a turnstile, absolutely packed with kids in the summer, freezing cold and unheated. I saw it closed down and was impressed by the long-running campaign by dedicated early morning swimmers to continue swimming there, and then when they couldn’t do that undertook the seemingly impossible task of fighting for it to reopen. They finally achieved that a few years ago, with a renovated and heated outdoor pool, which since last year has been floodlit and open until 9 pm virtually every day all year. It is incredibly popular and busy, even in the winter months, and crowded in summer.
I was slow to appreciate it after it reopened because I thought that 25° was quite cold. After rediscovering outdoor swimming I realise that some describe 13° as toasty, and 25° as too hot! It’s a good place to end day three of dips all along the A12 from Great Yarmouth to Hackney.
I worked in Hackney 1980-1993. I have lived on the same Hackney estate since 1987, first in one of the rundown tower blocks and now in the remaining renovated one, and I have seen quite a few changes. Living in a tower block is transformed by having a 24-hour concierge service, though having this run by G4S is not so good, and some of the good aspects of living here are threatened by the cuts Hackney Council is being forced to make by this vicious Tory government and the changes to council housing the government is are trying to bring in. My parents visited me and stayed at the flat quite a few times, including coming to watch the rather traumatic demolition of my original tower block.