With pools across Britain unable to allow people in during lockdown, the ‘Lido Ladies’ found solace in the world of outdoor swimming
In the months leading up to the first lockdown last March, the local lido had become a lifeline for designer Jessica Walker. A full-time carer to her mother – who had recently been diagnosed with colon cancer and given a vanishingly small chance of surviving – Jessica needed an outlet for her stress.
“When you’re a full time carer it’s emotionally draining – there’s no escape. But in the swimming pool no one can reach you,” she says. “What started as a quick dip became like a prayer every morning. A daily meditation: you breathe in, you breathe out and you let go of any stress or anxiety.”
Jessica, 56, enlisted her friend Nicola Foster as a swimming buddy and the pair would head off to Charlton Lido at 7am every morning.
It wasn’t long before they’d built up their stamina and were swimming a mile and 2km respectively.
While swimming had become an important safety valve for Jessica’s mental health, Nicola, 55, soon discovered the miraculous physical benefits.
“After I turned 50, getting out of bed and that first walk down the stairs was really quite stiff. But then I woke up one morning and thought: ‘I’m not stiff any more, it’s gone, it’s absolutely gone.’ The issue I had with my hip, my knee, all gone, I felt amazing. I’m convinced exercise is the explanation. The swimming also helped me manage my weight and keep it stable. I’ve lost 10 kilos since I started.”
They even started a website and Instagram account, Lido Ladies London, to spread the word about their new-found passion, encouraging other midlife women to get in the water.
“We wanted to say: “You’re 50, you can still be glorious, embrace your curves and put on a swimming costume,” says Nicola. “Swimming is really good for women of our age because of what it does for the joints.”
“It’s a great way of keeping hot flushes at bay,” adds Jessica. “It’s been proven that it releases endorphins.”
But then, in March, the lockdown was announced, the lidos shut and their daily dose of medicinal exercise was brought to an abrupt halt.
“We thought, ‘Oh goodness where is this all going to end up?’” says Jessica. At first they tried walking instead, covering as much as seven to 10 miles a day, but Jessica was soon hobbling thanks to an injured hip.
As a way to keep their spirits up, the pair turned to Instagram, where they created a “lido fantasy world” with retro swimsuits, flowery hats and increasingly elaborate props. “I’ve always worn a flowery hat as it makes people laugh,” says Jessica. “I got Nicola to wear one too and the pictures got more and more elaborate and hilarious.
“We began following the headlines. So when Boris Johnson said we had to ‘dig deep’, we took a picture with our plastic Poundland spades and flowery hats.
“It was so much fun, and kept us and the people around us very buoyant during that lockdown.”
In the summer, when bars and restaurants opened, but outdoor lidos remained shut, the pair used their following to campaign for a rethink, appearing on the radio to talk about the mental and physical health benefits of swimming, especially for women.
They had hit upon one of 2020’s biggest trends. Interest in outdoor swimming has surged, with people flocking to lakes, rivers and open air pools to take exercise.
At one point, demand was so high the Outdoor Swimming Society was forced to take down its map of wild swimming spots to prevent overcrowding.
And when lidos did reopen in July, visitors skyrocketed, even despite restrictions on numbers – the West Reservoir in East London welcomed 800 visitors a day this year, the same number they had in a week in 2019. It will stay open throughout the winter, for the first time this year, due to customer demand.
Similarly, Charlton Lido has seen their swimming members quadruple this year.
Joe Rham, Better’s regional director said that the stress of this year’s events was a factor. “Many of our swimmers say how much swimming outdoors, even in the colder months, benefits their mental health and during a pandemic that is of particular value.”
With no holiday plans, Nicola and Jessica decided to make the most of the summer by touring the UK’s lidos, discovering a whole new world of retro glamour.
The recently restored Hillingdon Lido was a particular hit. “It has an incredible art deco pavilion, it’s like taking a walk back in time to Miami for the day,” says Jessica.
Jesus Green in Cambridge was another favourite. “It’s amongst the longest lidos in Europe – 100 yards long but just 15 yards wide – and it’s incredible as you’re swimming right next to the river.”
When lidos shut again for the second lockdown at the beginning of November, the Lido Ladies were aghast – especially since the pools had developed effective Covid-proofing systems, with booking apps, one way routes for visitors and lanes for social distancing.
“It was sad,” says Nicola. “I am not a weepy woman, but this time around even I shed a tear. I’d got so fit, I could bang out 2km in 40 minutes. And unfortunately at our age you can lose fitness quite quickly, so the idea of having to rebuild that was disheartening. This time around it didn’t seem to make much sense.”
The future of the lidos was debated in Parliament last month, and the decision taken to reopen them as soon as the lockdown ended. So, on a dark and misty morning last week, The Lido Ladies reopened Charlton Lido, complete with flowery hats and retro swimsuits.
“We were beyond excited,” says Nicola. “Though there’s no decision on whether they will be protected in future spikes.”
Either way, their campaign certainly seems to have struck a chord. “We’ve had messages on Instagram, with a number of comments saying ‘your photos brighten my day’, but also from people who might not have thought about going swimming who have got in the water because of what we’ve been doing,” says Nicola. “I think it’s both about inspiring women of our age to take exercise, but also about being “visible” in midlife.”
Along with maintaining their social media profile, the pair have been busy working on a calendar in aid of the mental health charity MIND, with a suggested donation of £10. The first print run has already sold out and they are doubling output for the second, which they are selling through their Instagram page and in a local deli.
Jessica’s mother survived an operation for her cancer, against the odds, and turned 90 last weekend.
“She’s incredible,” says Jessica. “She’s survived five heart attacks, a triple bypass, leukaemia and colon cancer and she just keeps going.”
“We had a tiny tea party for two to celebrate. If she’s still alive in the summer we’ll celebrate then with a Mad Hatter’s tea party.” They certainly won’t have to look far for a hat.