The Serpentine is a swimming, boating and leisure lake in Hyde Park, established by Queen Caroline, the wife of George II, in 1730. Strictly speaking the Western half is referred to as The Long Water and the Eastern half The Serpentine but often the lake is considered to be a single body of water, and better known by the latter name, which refers to its sinewy natural-looking lines. There may have been monastic ponds on the site beforehand. Originally the water for the artificial lake of The Serpentine was supplied from The River Westbourne and The Thames but, due to pollution, the water now comes from three boreholes within Hyde Park. People have used the lake for leisure and pleasure since its creation, and it has a varied clientele, combined with other park users. A plan to create a skating pond with formal edges was for example proposed in 1860 but was never implemented.
Swimming, the Lido and The Serpentine Club
Though swimming in open water has been a popular activity since The Serpentine was first created as a lake, a rectangular swimming area on the southern bank opened in 1930, and was known as Lansbury's Lido, after a prominent Labour politician who was First Commissioner of Works from 1929-1931. Lidos were opened as part of a wider movement to encourage healthful recreation, and the important skills of swimming and life saving amongst the wider population. The Lido is partitioned off from the rest of the lake by a perimeter of buoys and, my research (A Contemporary History of Women’s Sport) has established that when it opened on 16 June 1930 the first person to enter was twenty one year old Kathleen Murphy of Pinner who had arrived at the gate at 5 am and was rewarded for her enthusiasm by a medal by Alfred Rowley the Secretary of the Serpentine Swimming Club.
The opening of the Lido marked a vague for mixed bathing outdoors that swept across Britain and saw more Lidos constructed in the 1920s and 1930s. However, The Serpentine Swimming Club was amongst the oldest swimming clubs, dating back to 1864, though at least one other club, the London Swimming Club, was also formally sharing the swimming area on the lake's south side at the time. This open air swimming was not for the faint hearted, as the lake could ice over in December and January and the number of people drowning in the Victorian era was a major cause for concern, with The Royal Life Saving Society founded in 1891. The Club holds a race every Saturday throughout the year: from a 40 yards to a mile, all measured in in imperial lengths. Members can swim in the Serpentine any time between 6am and 9.30am, and many do this as before their working day.
The Serpentine and Literary History
As you will probably be aware, as well as being a keen swimmer and having completed The Great North Swim mile event in Lake Windermere a few years ago, Jean was also for many years a teacher of English. So as well as the special geographical place of The Serpentine in the history of sport and leisure, Jean has long been intrigued by the history of the lake because it has a unique place in literary history. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was not known to swim, but he was drawn to water. Notoriously, in December 1816, his pregnant wife Harriet Westbrook, was found drowned in the Serpentine having left a suicide note addressed to her father, sister and husband. Having already conducted a lengthy affair since 1814, Shelley married Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, less than two weeks later. The couple had already lost their own daughter and would lose two more before a surviving child and the success of Mary’s novel Frankenstein bought happier times. But Shelley would drown in 1822 in suspicious circumstances in a boating accident off Sardinia.
More happily, the public are aware of the Serpentine Club Christmas Day Race, which records date back at least to 1864. Since 1913 the Christmas Day race has been swum for the Peter Pan Cup, donated and sponsored by James Barrie author of Peter Pan. Living nearby, he often walked in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park and was inspired by the Serpentine swimmers. More directly, Indian author Vikram Seth became an active club member for several years as well as briefly using this experience in An Equal Music.
Jean Swims The Serpentine as a guest of The Serpentine Swimming Club 17 September 2017-water temperature 13 degrees!
So I have always wanted to swim The Serpentine Lido section, and joined as a day guest of a Serpentine Swimming Club member, called John. At a balmy thirteen degrees at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning the experience can perhaps best be described as bracing. The buoys are placed to mark out a rectangular area one hundred yards in length, though many of the club members swim beyond these to extend their workout. The single small, sparse changing room offered little comfort other than that others thought the experience worth the Spartan conditions. Although offered a regulation hat I declined as I often find that they give me a headache, but other guests are well advised to wear a bright cap for identification. Dodging the debris left by resident geese and ducks on the platform, a quick walk down the steps into the water and we were in! Other braver, and hardier souls dive into the lake, but entering the water head first can be shocking and so not for us. I swam with my friend Debbie who had not swum open water before and took to it like the proverbial duck to water. Or should I say dolphin because once acclimatized on the hundred yards out, her confidence and speed increased exponentially. Me? Well I had waited a long time to swim the Serpentine, and though my standard pool swim in a mile and a half front crawl, I choose to take my time and savour the experience. We are meeting again today, Saturday 30 September, #NSHD2017 to discuss our next open water swim to prepare for another Serpentine outing. Intrigued yourself? Why not take the plunge?