Updated: Feb 24, 2020
“Ser-pen-ti- ine, my Serpenti-ine, Ser-pen-ti- ine, my Serpenti-ine”… A musical fruit-loop from the Serpentine Swimming Club Christmas Party choir. “I’m going swimming in the morning; ding-dong my bits are going to chime; water’s almost frozen, it’s what I’ve chosen; so get me to the Serpentine”… A party-piece sung by Sandy at last year’s party, dressed in togs and nothing else. These two very memorable musical-loops, were stuck in my mind, taking turns, dancing in my mind as I crossed Hyde Park, in London, with purpose, ‘get-me-to-the-Serpentine-on-time’ I improvised in the brief break between the two loops. ‘Get me to the changing rooms’ was the other improvisation. I overtook a limping old dog trying to keep up with his owner on his Saturday morning stroll, among many dog walkers, joggers and runners. We saw eye to eye briefly, one limping old dog to another. I was buoyed up by the trip in the previous week to Slovenia – tripping along, in a little pain but happy. The music-loop was carrying me along. Music is a part of the Serpentine Swimming Club, as is breakfast at the Lido Café, with swimming at all levels taking centre stage. The club is famous, venerated, internationally-known, the oldest in the world many say, and its members diverse in knowledge and skills, and always interesting. And boy can they swim – I am privileged to know among the most accomplished swimmers and those that swim for pleasure and aesthetics here. The club has many gods, alive and dead, in its pantheon. I place Nick and Boris in this pantheon, the other Nick, Hungerford, is currently undertaking the many daunting tasks that it takes to become a god – the Ice Mile, the Polar Bear Challenge, and next year the Polar Bear Challenge - Jedi level (don't ask - mega challenge).
Today the club is on the cusp of transition – the club house will undergo renovation in the coming months (there is much passionate discussion about this – how will it be done? Who was consulted?), and the café sees its opening day after winter-months of renovation. I put my head around the café door, which is ajar, and ask the manager if it will be open today. He is an energetic and charming man in his thirties, and says “I certainly hope so! We have been working solidly into the night all last week to make it so!” Pauline and I wish him the very best – he knows of the swimming club, knows that soon after nine there will be a tidal surge of swimmers seeking breakfast, relentless in their quest for their avo-on-toast (with or without Burford Brown poached eggs) and their swimmers discount. He says he plans to try swimming at the club when it gets a bit warmer, and we encourage him – swimmers are lovely people, we say, and the club is fantastic.
On to the club-house, which is right next door, the little unassuming changing room being crowded by the first wave of swim-racers this Saturday morning. More by luck than preparation, today is a ‘scratch’ race, meaning that everyone starts at the same time, without a handicap. This is accidentally good for me, since the handicap that regular swimmers have, which reflects performance in previous races, is something eludes me because I am never able to join the races for enough consecutive Saturdays. It is an aspiration, so far thwarted. The handicap is to my mind a mystery, a secret protected by Danny the handicapper, and is something that can help secure a win at a race, or conversely secure last place. The handicapper is a person of skill and the position is one of power. People start swimming with the count-down in minutes and seconds from the slowest first to the fastest last, all according to handicap in minutes and seconds. The finish at a handicap race is very exciting and quite chaotic, with most people finishing quite close to each other. I ask Danny and he enters me for the first race, and I am happy to take part – that is enough for me. Today’s winner is Nick, a huge swim-achiever and a role-model for many. Head, shoulders and biceps above everybody, he is part of the back-bone of the club. An experienced channel-swimmer, he trains the channel swimmers of the club – solo and relay.
Robin is another part of the backbone – 79 years of age, he is former President and everyday presence – he knows everyone’s name, has a kind word for everyone, makes tea when it is needed, offers advice when sought, and talks with everyone. Alan is the present President, who works with Scottish astuteness and wit to advance the club’s aims. This morning he calls the club members “an organisation of anarchists” or something close to that. Stray cats are perhaps easier to round up, and that is perhaps why the handicap system works so well –everyone starts in their own time. They just have to know their own time. That is why on entering the clubhouse on a Saturday morning there is clustering of people by the notice-board, where the list of handicaps is pinned. Some are happy with their handicap, some are not, but the handicap time cannot be challenged, and even if it could, it wouldn’t be cool to – that would suggest taking it far more seriously than it should be.
The Saturday morning race is an opportunity for coming together as swimmers, something that doesn’t routinely happen during the week. Today it is a 55 yard dash, in seven degree water. The group-ness of Saturday morning swimming has several facets – getting changed in the crowded tiny changing room, waiting to swim and talking in huddles, the races themselves, talking and watching the races you are not in, getting changed after swimming (in winter as much as an organised chaos of arms and fumbling of fingers to put on tops and fasten buttons), the announcement of the winners and prize-giving, singing in the choir by the water-front under the skilled direction of Katherine, and breakfast at the café. Many happy huddles make a happy Saturday morning at the Serpentine Swimming Club.