Mike MJ Harris

Paddling Through A Pandemic


One of the last 'normal' things I did at the start of the year was to go swimming in London fields Lido on the 19th March. That week there had already been a raft of announcements - parts of life closing down and vulnerable people shielding. That morning the lady on reception said they would be aiming to stay open. By the end of the week they were shut. Horizons shrunk to our homes, activities curtailed, lockdown started.

The next time I went swimming was the 5th June - since then it has been one of the joys of the summer and has helped mind and body get reaccustomed to a wider post lockdown world with loosening limits. Here's my story of paddling through a pandemic.

West reservoir evening
Evening view of West Reservoir


The initial fear and uncertainty at the end of March gave way to a regular, monotonous routine in April jarringly punctuated by the horrific news. I was incredibly fortunate and privileged to have a fairly easy and stable lockdown. By May I was craving something new - I took a week off work and on a cycle through town saw swimmers in the Serpentine - but they'd been overwhelmed and had already stopped new members signing up.

So swimming was a possibility! I kept my eyes peeled to see if any other venues were opening - particularly for news from the wonderful swim twitter community. In early June Sally posted one of her brilliant Postcards From the Pool about swimming in a new venue in the Isle of Dogs. Excited I looked into it, replied to Sally's tweet and found out we'd both be there at the same time. It was so exciting to have an activity booked, to go somewhere new and to have plans catch up with a friend!

Millwall Docks

There was huge demand and and spaces were at a premium - I managed to get a slot at 10am on Thursday 6th June. Up early, bag packed I cycled along the network of canals that link where I live to the Isle of Dogs. It was a workday but one of the benefits of the pandemic has been more flexible working. At 9.30 I took my morning standup call on the edge of a murky Thames, shortly after I was stood on the side of the docks frantically waving at Sally who I'd just spotted across the car park. We became twitter pals a while ago and had met in person at the Lido. That morning at the docks it was amazing to see a friend's face in real life and not on a zoom call!

Milwall docks open water swim

What a joy to be back in the water! For the next thirty minutes I thrashed around, no rhythm, no feel for the water, zig zagging about, mind buzzing, water splashing. An absolutely terrible swim but the most amazing one at the same time. Afterwards I had the tough task of shaking some warmth back into my hands and trying to wipe the joyful smile off my face. What a treat.

A week later I jogged the 10k to the docks, swam then got a take away coffee and sat with Sally and a group of her swimming friends. Another post lockdown first, meeting up with a group: a fizz of anxiety, all sat apart but big smiles and lots of swimming and life chat.

West Reservoir

News that West Reservoir was opening rippled out across the swim community - I got a mid week slot on Thursday 18th June. That morning I cycled through the deserted streets of Stoke Newington, excited to be at a venue I'd visited occasionally before. There was an excited line of socially distanced people outside - How does it work? Where do you change? I went last week! It's my first time. Whats the temperature like? How was your lockdown? It's so good to be out! How was furlough? Work? Home schooling? Isolation? At least we have the water now!

West Reservoir

Then we were in, a quick briefing, a spacious quay to change in the sun, a polite queue and then into the water. There are no straight edges here - the round reservoir and skewy circular route helped free the mind. The short paddle out, sharp dog leg left at the tictac, a glance as you crossed over homecoming paddlers and you were out! Kayaks keeping watch around the course, grey water to immerse your head in and block out the world around you for 40 marvelous minutes. Dripping as you returned to shore, dropping off your tow buoy and drying yourself off in the sun. Glorious.

West Reservoir became my regular - there were slots all day long and it was moments from home. The flexibility of work meant I didn't need to compete for the busy morning and late afternoon slots - often turning up for a quick dip after lunch, enjoying some sun and then back to the keyboard revitalised. Met up with friends from a swimming holiday a previous year: we swam, sat in Clissold park and enjoyed pizza and beer. I met another twitter friend for the first time IRL there (Hi Charlotte!) and of course I spotted Sally. Seeing the morning sun, swimming in evening dusk, bathing in weekend sun. West Reservoir - my happy place.

Olympic Park

Olympic Pool Stratford

So far open air seemed safer in a pandemic world but by the end of August the infection numbers were lower and the right measures in place for pools to open. The Olympic pool in Stratford is even closer than West Reservoir. They've done a brilliant job with the Olympic park and the pool is one of the highlights - the Zaha Hadid designed whales tongue is a stunning building. I booked a slot, cycled over, got confused by the one way system inside but made it into the pool. After months of open water swimming the pool felt strange - the freedom and random directions were replaced with linear, regular lengths. More contained but smoother, focused, rhythmic. A good change, another new experience.

London Fields Lido

The Lido had been open for a while too but slots were at a premium - whereas the Olympic pool was bookable on the day the Lido required advanced planning. Finally got my chance and in the last week in August.,

When I moved to the area a few years ago I fell back in love with swimming by visiting the Lido. I took swimming lessons and made visits here part of my routine. During summers I'd be there a couple of mornings a week. I'd arrive early, have a swim and then sit and read a book in the sun trap to the side with a coffee and croissant before heading off to work. I'd been so looking forward to more of the same this summer but I hadn't been since that last normal day back in March.

London Fields Lido

It was weird being back, areas roped off, no lingering after but the pool was the same: the all year round heated water, the trees and sky still cheering you on. And then I spotted a regular, and another. I caught up with the lovely elderly couple who have the same favourite spot by the side of the pool. We've been chatting and reading books together for years - so happy they had a safe lockdown.

It was great to be back. A touch of melancholy at a missed summer and a reminder of the pandemic and all the disruption it's caused.

Thankful and Thinking About The Future

The days are getting shorter, leaves are changing colour and there's a chill not just in the air but in the water too. The news too is changing - the warm denial of summer has given way to the cooling reality of a second wave. The short days and temperature will mean I'll mainly be visiting the Lido or Olympic pool with maybe the occasional quick open water dip. Further restrictions may curtail activities even more and who knows if I'll stay healthy.

There will be some reflective time feeling sad that the summer is over but the seasons change and life moves on. Open water swimming will give way to other activities, to lazing on the sofa with a book, out running on the trails, enjoying something different. There will still be fresh winters evenings at the Lido for my swim fix.

Incredibly grateful and thankful that I've been able to enjoy a glorious summer of swimming. It's helped me physically and mentally over the last few months. There was a reason to go out again, a place to be with other people and share an experience with. Navigating the open water also helped me navigate through the stresses of the pandemic so far.



Huge thank you to all the venues who have been incredibly welcoming and friendly whilst at the same time implementing all the necessary procedures. They've all felt very safe. Everyone visiting respected each others space and there seemed a general sense of happiness and a moment to forget the world around.

Thank you to Sally for sharing her joy of swimming and allowing me to join in with her swimming group. Has been lovely catching up!

Thanks to Charlotte who also posted inspirational pics which encouraged me to visit more regularly as well as answering my many questions! We got to meet up in real life at West Reservoir - great to meet you and thanks for the book loan! From my experience in the summer open water swimming is a mainly White activity. Charlotte helps out with Swim Dem Crew who try and make swimming more inclusive.

There were many others who shared their experiences swimming through the pandemic - too many to mention but a quick thank you to Sophie who way back in April shared thoughts on where to take illicit dips in canals and rivers.

If you are looking to brighten up your twitter feed with swimming related content then the accounts already mentioned are worth following. For even more swimming focussed posts then St Ives Mermaid, Ella Foote and Rachel are worth a look. The The Beautiful Briny post wonderful sea related art works - maybe of interest to those who enjoy the view but aren't interested in swimming! Love Your Lido post stunning pics from lidos all over the country. Finally the London based locations: West Reservoir and London Fields Lido who post regular updates including the exciting news that West Reservoir is open for chilly winter open water sessions!

Finally a thank you to work for being so flexible - they've treated us with respect: trusting us to manage our routine and timings. Being able to swim during the day and not have to compete for the popular morning and evening slots has been fantastic.

Other locations

I've focussed on my regular swims in London for most of this piece - mainly as an attempt to keep the post from getting too long. I've been incredibly fortunate to get out of town and enjoy swims in other parts of the country too. If you're still reading this deep into the appendix then you must be interested!!

Dorking Quarry

Dorking Quarry Swim

My mum had been open water swimming too and she took me to her favourite spot in Dorking in August. After mostly being in London getting out of town was super refreshing as was swimming in a new location. Perhaps the most picturesque of them all? The months of concern for parents safety was washed away by being able to share some time splashing around outside.


Margate Tidal Pool

In early September took the short trip out to Margate - lots of the Hackney tech crowd have either moved there or visit regularly so got to catch up with some friends. Brilliant break and refreshing to enjoy the sea air. Every morning got up and enjoyed the large stretches of sand at low tide and got to swim in the tidal pool. Waking up to that every day would be the dream!


Margate Tidal Pool

Most of my childhood holidays were spent down in Cornwall visiting Grandparents. It's where I first got comfortable in the water spending the endless summer days splashing in the sea. In October I went down to pay a visit to my Grandma and went swimming in the local beach - Talland. The water was a reasonable 14 degrees and managed 2 x 25min swims without a wetsuit! I'm not that good with the cold - from experience I know that I need the right warm kit after and a hot drink soon after and I'll be OK. Lovely tingling warming sensation.

And that's it! You made it to the end - both London swims and others around the country! I hope that you found some way of being able to deal with the pandemic. It might go on for a while so here's hoping we all can find some happiness amongst the gloom.