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The New YorkTimes
LONDON — Liz Barraclough likened it to falling naked into a bank of nettles. Guy Wickett said it felt like making snowballs without gloves. Timothy Sutton was more direct: “It bloody hurts,” he said. “But the good thing is if you scream under water no one can hear you.”
At just after 8 a.m. on a recent December day, the water temperature at Brockwell Lido, an Olympic-size outdoor pool in southeast London, had dropped to 43 degrees for the first time this season. A small crowd of swimmers gathered in the low-built 1930s courtyard, their breath misty in the drizzle. Accountants, teachers, stay-at-home moms, retirees and students — they all need their daily fix of nearly ice-cold water.
Some carry wet suits in their bags. But few wear one. Most rely on neoprene socks and gloves or wear two silicon hats instead of one. Marianne Apherton, 57, swears by a woolly bobble hat.
“Whooooooaaaaaaa!” shouted Lizzie McPhee, 44, an actress-turned-communications coach. She fitted her goggles, rubbed her hands, sprinted toward the pool’s edge and dived head first.
“It makes me feel alive,” she explained later, lips purplish blue and body bright pink. “It’s like a reboot.”
In Britain, a nation suffering economic malaise, budget austerity and chilly winter rains, a growing number of people are defying the cold and wet by getting colder and wetter. Winter swimming’s popularity has grown.
There are 778 unheated outdoor pools like the Brockwell Lido in Britain. In London alone, five operate all year. Swimmers also dive into public ponds in Hampstead Heath, a park in northwest London, or the Serpentine in Hyde Park.
London’s oldest outdoor pool, Tooting Bec, has been open since 1906, and its membership totals 1,500, compared with 50 in the 1980s, when it was almost forced to close. Last January, it hosted Britain’s Cold Water Swimming Championships. In near-freezing water, 575 participants competed, compared with 350 in 2011 and 200 in 2006.
Brockwell once closed from November through March. But users successfully lobbied to keep it open year-round.
The cold-water swimming boom is partly attributable to the growing popularity of triathlons, which also has increased the number of cyclists on the roads. But there is more to it, said Jonathan Cowie, race director at the South London Swimming Club.
“People do cold-water swimming for a buzz, for health reasons, for the friends they make and to alleviate depression,” Cowie said. “But it is also part of a wider movement toward a closer relationship with nature.”
Some enthusiasts said this movement had been reinforced by economic problems that have made them realize the fleeting nature of material happiness.
“I see the glum faces under their umbrellas in the morning, and I’m thinking, ‘I have a swimming costume in my bag,’ ” said Maureen Ni Fiann, 61, a psychotherapist. “The leaves in the water, the trees, the fresh air — it’s all a chance to escape the treadmill.”
All the people here have a story about what the cold does for them. Sutton, 53, a portrait artist, said it gets him up in the morning. Helen Milstein, 61, a teacher, said she used to have seasonal depression, but no more. “It helps you through the English winter.”
Sylvia Wheeler, 68, who walked with a stick to the pool’s edge, said she found relief from arthritis and two hip replacements. “I’m almost pain-free in the water, ” she said.
Many claimed it had bolstered their immune systems. “I don’t remember the last time I had a cold,” said Milstein’s husband, Peretz, whose nickname is Polar Bear because he stays in the water so long.
Some say they do not even need a thermometer to know the water’s temperature.
Linda Spashett, 63, a retiree, said with a giggle: “You know it’s pretty cold when your, um, naughty bits tingle. Usually that’s the 10-degree mark,” or 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Below about 40 degrees, most say, it all feels sort of the same: The water is thick, and skin feels on fire.
Later, when everyone huddled at the next-door cafe, the conversation turned to the best ways to warm up. Apherton recommended a thermos of hot tea. Milstein recommended a hat and gloves to warm the extremities. The men said they used hair dryers to blow hot air up their shirts.
What about a hot shower?
“You definitely don’t want to do that,” Milstein said.
Instead, he advises, “take a cold shower.”