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Updated: Jun 29, 2021

A few years ago, a woman in a red dressing-gown turned up at the swimming area at Lake Hardwick, at eight in the morning. She took out a flask of tea, an old kitchen timer – you know, the wind-up, Kitchcraft Delux Half Round 60 Minute Timer (which you can still buy at Fenwicks for seven pounds) and set it for twenty minutes. Took off her robe to reveal a beautiful red cozzie, started the clock, got in the water and swam breaststroke back and forth until the alarm went off. Got out, towelled-off, re-rerobed herself, poured herself some tea from her flask, gazed across the lake, then got in the car and drove off. I wasn’t watching all of this of course, I had been swimming when she arrived, nodded hello, and kept swimming. I also had tea to drink after my swim, and so witnessed the ritual not realising that it was a ritual, until I had seen it three times across a week. I am not sure the detail of this first encounter are strictly correct (for example, I don’t know if her kitchen timer really came from Fenwicks), but the timings of her swims were, and continued to be so across that summer – eight in the morning, twenty minutes kitchen-timer swim. There is nothing unusual in a swimmers focus on time and timings – competitive swimmers often obsess about their times for their swims, and many swimmers will have at least an idea of how quickly they can swim a hundred meters. I know one swimmer who, when he doesn’t know the distance of an open water swim, will count to a thousand, stroke by stoke. Then he will have swum about a kilometer, in English. For his second kilometer, he will count to a thousand in Italian. Then he will swim a kilometer in French, and another in German. To swim five kilometers for him would mean learning another language, which I am certain he is capable of. And he is capable of swimming many kilometers beyond the four. And should he start to lose his memory in old age his open water swimming distances could well become shorter – ‘Now I have forgotten how to speak German, I can only swim three kilometers…’

It wasn’t the focus on time that made Judith Holder stand out, it was her swimming-session ritual. After a few of these (which I couldn’t bear to interrupt), I finally said hello, using words. It turned out she could speak too, and so a conversation started as she switched on her kitchen-timer. The conversation continued in the water, back-and-forth, until the timer went off. Then she apologised, got out, dried off in her red cozzie while drinking tea, re-robed, and drove off (in her red Volvo). We had talked about many things in that twenty minutes – swimming at the Serpentine Swimming Club (she had been a member when she had lived in London), what a strange place Oxford is, how she had just moved from North Yorkshire to live in this area and desperately needed to swim outdoors. And about random objects of desire, pomegranates (what a strange word that is), and a book on aging disgracefully that she was planning. According to the blurb (another strange word) from her agent, ‘Judith Holder is a bestselling comedy writer, TV producer and speaker. She originated the BBC series and stage shows 'Grumpy Old Women' which have sold worldwide. She's made comedy about growing old for over 15 years, and very entertaining and insightful it is too. She is also the only swimmer I know who uses a kitchen-timer to time her swims.

At the lake, there is always a nod from Judith, always a hello and a smile, and sometimes a swim more-or-less together, chatting about pomegranates and other important words. About cycling around Lake Konstanz and stopping to swim every few kilometers, and about Lake Bled. Loves Lake Bled. From swimming alone, she progressed to swimming with a village friend, still at eight in the morning, always in a dressing gown. Just a previous year a third village friend joined them, and then a fourth. The two ‘The Ladies Who Swim’ became ‘Now They Are Three’, and then and now ‘Swim Along With Four’. Judith now comes wearing a dry-robe - what colour? Red of course. Judith often wears hers to the lake even when she is walking the dog and not swimming; she wears it at home too, now she has tried to push her swimming later into the season. Swim Along With Four are not always there all together, but when they are, they swim and then sit at a bench together, drinking their tea and talking pomegranates and lockable tupperware. Something to aspire to upon retirement.

Judith has an amazing eye for detail and a sharp mind for humour, which we know is a serious business. She counts among her comedian friends the late Victoria Wood and Jenny Éclair, whom she brought to the lake for a swim one day. Jenny Éclair is not really a swimmer, turns out, she is much more of a flapper-around-er with dainty feet. Judith, in addition to her huge achievements in comedy – Grumpy Old Women is about celebrity-women grumping about all the things that are wrong with current society, down to very funny minutae – has done things that no-one else could pull off. She sent Joanna Lumley to a desert Island, and reunited the cast of 'The Sound of Music' for the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2010. I see her most mid-week mornings across the summer, when I am there at Lake Hardwick. She is not grumpy at all - always very positive when I see her, even on the worst day, when it is usually ‘I really need this swim’ before ‘hello’. I know this feeling well; it is often me needing that swim. In this podcast, we talk about swimming, getting older, why she is addicted to outdoor swimming and why comedian Jenny Éclair is not. Please enjoy listening.

Listen to the podcast here

Older and Wider podcast series, Judith Holder with Jenny Éclair –

Judith Holder’s blog ‘Grey Pride’ -


Television series ‘Grumpy Old Women’. Judith Holder gives the commentary and is the woman whose face you never see at the start of each theme –

Jenny Éclair book, Older and Wider -

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