I entered the sixteen-degree water using a little-known technique named the ‘not too slow so your body doesn’t realise what’s happening but not too fast as that’s just pure pain’. It worked but I was not alone; there were other souls needing an acceptable form of public punishment. One guy wore a wetsuit. He laughed at my facial expressions and little noise complaints as I bravely submerged myself into the super-chilled temperatures until I pointed out he was cheating with his extra layer. He agreed. He may be smarter but he’s not as tough as this cookie.
Part of being British is about displaying a stiff upper lip and doing daft things. I headed to the latest trendiest hotspot, Tooting, in south west London, as I wanted to indulge in what remains of true old British culture. First on the list was Tooting Bec’s lido. This open-air freshwater swimming pool is the longest in the UK, one of the oldest, and, in October, in my opinion, probably one of the coldest daft things to do.
Swimming in cold water is good for you, apparently. The therapeutic benefits of immersing yourself into an icy bath became the go-to remedy for any ailment during the Victorian era in the UK and during the Edwardian period, the health benefits of swimming boosted its popularity. Once getting a tan was fashionable and bathing suit technology caught up, demand for supervised outdoor water-based recreation sites went through the roof.
I breast-stroked on, enjoying being brilliantly bonkers for swimming outdoors in the rain, loving the freshwater feels and also kind of enjoying the pain of being so cold. After a good forty minutes of traversing the 90 metre long pool, I decided it was a good idea to regain some sensation in my feet. It was a glorious, refreshing and yet slightly torturous ordeal.
Tooting Bec Lido has been open to the public since 1908, although mixed bathing was only allowed from 1931. Having been rescued from closure in the early 1990’s the retro-styled bathing spot has now become super popular again, especially when the sun bakes the local London residents to a crisp. However, the winter months are not surprisingly less crowded at Tooting Lido. If sixteen degrees is not hardcore enough for you then the lido hosts a bi-annual cold water swimming championship, when the water temperature can get very close to freezing. Not even a wetsuit could tempt me.
George told me about how he had to hide from the bombs during the war. Sent home from school with sirens dominating the air and a frightening prospective looming on the horizon, no wonder he recollects those terrifying moments to passing strangers ears. George’s experiences are ones he can never forget and perhaps, his way of processing that time is by talking to anyone who will listen.
I got to hear about George’s war stories in Harrington’s, another legendary Tooting joint and next port of call on my quest to have the classic British experience. Harrington’s winning menu has been dishing up it’s winning formula of good, honest, food since 1908. It is a family run business to this day and although it’s been handed down, it looks like the decor and fare have not altered one iota. I needed warming up after my cold dip and a hearty plate of pie, mashed potato and liquor was just the ticket.
Pies and eels were staples of the working class diet as the pastry crust protected the contents from the grimy industrial air and eels were the only animal that could survive the polluted river waters. Add some cheap potatoes and liquor (the liquid that the eels were cooked in with a bit of parsley) and you have a delicious meal. It seems Harrington’s clientele hasn’t changed much either, with well looked after regulars like George and local tradesmen filing in and out for their lunch.
My penultimate stop on my great British cultural adventure was to go shopping. London is one of the world’s meccas for buying stuff, and home to internationally famous stores such as Harrods, Hamley’s and Selfridges. In SW17 there are two covered market areas next to each other, Tooting Market and the Broadway market. Inside are a pet shop, butchers, nail bars, fruit and veg stalls all of which have been there for donkey’s years. However, the walls outside protests against closing the covered stall area, which has been threatening these commerce hubs.
More recently, there has been an injection of hip, with the arrival of new cafes, pop up wine bars and funky craft beer pit stops. The market’s revival has breathed new life into this corner of independent retail and you can witness the traditional entrepreneurial spirit that is very quintessentially British.
I popped over the road from the markets to quench my thirst with a pint of Young’s beer at The Castle pub. (Top tip, if you download Young’s app you make this a free drink, obvs only if you are aged over 18). Established in 1832 it is another Tooting stalwart, former music venue and frequented by film cowboy John Wayne in the 1940’s. I used to come here in the early 2000’s for the quiz night on Tuesdays when it was one of that sticky carpet, one armed bandit pubs, serving ale and crisps and that’s about it. My trivia team was always beaten by the ‘Five men and a Dog’ crew. I was utterly convinced the canine was the real know it all and employed the humans as stooges.
Today The Castle has been transformed into a modern multifunctional community social space, with long tables surrounded by sofas and loungers plus a snazzy looking restaurant. There are even beach style huts with fires and fridges outside in the garden. It’s still dog-friendly. Funny that…
If you want to encounter the best of British then head to Tooting. Be baptised by the waters of Tooting’s Lido, fill your belly with terrific working-class cuisine from Harrington’s, buy some funky items from one of the markets, stop to quench your thirst at The Castle. If you are lucky then you will be graced with George’s presence and hear his tales of old Tooting town.
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