Swimming at Chatsworth. No we didn’t use their pool.

 

If someone suggests you *might* be able to swim in the river in front of Chatsworth House, do you shudder, keep your clothes on and stroll over to the entry gate with your credit card, or pack your kit and head far away from the front door?

The outdoor swimmer’s bible, Wild Swimming, suggested being ‘discreet’. So we parked and meandered across the stunning parkland in the August evening’s sunshine trying to look really discreet with our towels under our arms as everyone else drove away from the house.

What fun! It was squishy and squelchy underfoot but once swimming it was utterly glorious, decadent – and felt almost like a stolen swim. Whilst there were no ‘no swimming’ signs the fine owners of Chatsworth certainly don’t advertise river swimming as part of their attractions to the well-healed visitor.

So we frolicked and swam in the river and then frolicked some more. The best view, perversely was not towards the house but away from it, where we saw a fish jump in the water and a large herd of pale coloured, aristocratic deer. I’m not sure if we were spotted from the house, as it’s hard to be discreet when your party consists of 3 adults, an enthusiastic teenager and an even more enthusiastic black Labrador. It would have helped if we’d changed before we got there. We launched the duck thermometer, which read 15’C just before Labrador Grace dived in to retrieve it, crunch.  Actually it’s more fun not knowing the temperature, so perhaps it’s best as a fetch toy.

As for Chatsworth itself, that’s for another day. There is indeed a Chatsworth swimming pool, open to members, and housed in a rather attractive building elsewhere on the estate. Another challenge might be to swim in the lake to the side of the house…. which is so beautifully photographed on this page.

 

Competing for recognition. Teenage twins battle it out in the pool and on the track.

Early on our children realised, unconsciously or not, that it would be a good idea to do different sports from one another. One snowy Sunday aged 3 1/2 he decided to try out at her ballet class. Dressed in blue and white striped pyjamas he gave it a go. Disaster. It was no fun at all for her to have her class invaded by her pesky brother. After that she never went to ballet again, the teacher had spent too much time praising her twin, she just couldn’t go back with or without him. So years later she took up competitive swimming, and he football later adding athletics and cricket into the mix.

Today he is utterly fed up that she won’t recognise him for his successes on the track. After the first race she couldn’t hide how impressed she was, asking him about his times, his splits and for how long he led. But now she’s not quite so vocal.

She’s fed up because he no longer congratulates her on her victories in the pool.

I think this is nonsense, he’s swift to praise when she comes home clunking a medal or brandishing a new personal best and she’s quite good at patting him on the back. But it doesn’t matter what I think, or what we say, it’s what they think that counts.

Urgh, how to encourage both children to be generous. Normally they get on pretty well, but of course as siblings they’ve got the ability to really annoy and persecute one another. We can’t draw on much experience as parents as neither of us enjoyed many podium moments when we were growing up (but I did win my first event at Durham Regatta many decades ago and I did get a medal for my Aspire swim the length of the channel swim…).

I know we don’t get recognition for many things in life, but boy does it taste sweet when you do. Whether you’ve won a new piece of business, a project you’re involved in has made a mark, or you’ve scored a new job – when people comment and notice it makes you glow, doesn’t it. When you get a medal or a gong or something more it’s all the better. I am so proud of being able to wear my British Swimming lanyard at galas now when I officiate (what?! well it shows I’ve spent hours poolside enough time swotting over the rules to qualify as a junior judge).

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I fear social media makes us crave recognition, be it a like or a share or a retweet, all the more.

This post was gestated in the glorious steel lined tank of Parliament Hill Lido where the water’s up to 15’C now but no one else seems to have cottoned on that it’s warm enough to give you that #FridayFeeling

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A week in the sea – in Crete – with jammy dodgers for post swim breakfasts

Oh the excitement of returning to a holiday destination. When the almost teenager says, ‘Ah I can feel the relaxation’ as she stands at the door of the aircraft, looking out across the runway, after we land. There’s none of the trepidation – will they like it, what’ll the food be like – instead the utter delight and anticipation of the return. At the hotel we are welcomed as friends by the all Greek staff. ‘How you have grown you teenagers! What can we get you? Some pasta, a pizza?’ It’s 11pm and they stay on til we are fed.

Looking out from our rooms at the dark sky studded with stars, and the darker sea beneath which we can hear gently lapping at the sandy shore. Oh thank you Hotel Ammos. Now at last the children have their oh so coveted Instagramable views…. and we have the foreign escape without cooking or washing up that we’ve been counting down to for the past year. And the breakfasts we have been dreaming of.

Homemade jammy dodgers and a slice of cucumber for breakfast, anyone?
Homemade jammy dodgers and a slice of cucumber for breakfast, anyone?

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One night we swam in the sunset. It was like no other swim. The village was backlit by the rapidly descending sun, and floating on our backs, toes to the orange orb of the sun, our feet were silhouetted amidst an almost oily sheen of deep orange and burnt pink. On the shore the wet slopes of sand were on fire, illuminated in a deep amber before each frothy wave wiped the surface clean again. No phones, no photos, instead a memory etched into our brains.

Here I swam for me and not my Aspire Challenge. No more was I swimming to clock up the metres and miles, in the quest to swim the distance across the English Channel in aid of the spinal injury charity Aspire. Having said I’d do my distance outside, it seemed a bit wimpish to finish it off in the warm waters of the Med rather than in the chilly depths of the lido.

There’s a rocky outcrop to the side of the bay, perhaps a 45 minute round trip, so twice I swam and swam and swam out to it and back for breakfast. Other days the sea was choppy and we decamped to another bay where we swam across its glassy surface.

I’ve escaped into books. Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere – so apt to be reading about an every day Syrian family whose lives were utterly transformed by the advent of fighting, to learn of prejudice and injustices, and hardships of refugee camps – and then to go into the local town and see migrants busking and selling toys and to wonder where they had travelled from and about the lives they’d left behind. And then to disappear into the depths of Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. A book steeped at first in the buzz and furious pace of urban life and then in the wilds of the Orkneys, with snorkelling amongst seaweed, winds so strong caravans are tied down with concrete blocks, and enormous personal challenges. Lying on a beach in Crete it made me long for Mull, for Eigg and to return to our family’s, and my own, adventures there.

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As wave jumping replaced swimming, and the four of us played amidst the breakers in the warm drizzle, sometimes being swept up washing machine style in the waves, I realise we’re quitting Crete ahead. It has given us three magical half terms, dashing from the sea to the shower to the pool, spent in the water, stuck into books, sometimes into phones but also united around the table playing fiercely competitive games of cards. The bar’s been raised high as we start to look for another destination offering warmth, water, delicious food and a welcome as good as Hotel Ammos’s.

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As we departed from Crete we spotted a submarine in the waters beside the runway. Quite something eh.

Spot the submarine - soon to be joined by a tug
Spot the submarine – soon to be joined by a tug

19.5 miles on the milometer for my outdoors Aspire Channel Swim

11’C down goes the temperature and up goes the distance I’ve swum. 19.5 miles! So that leaves a mere 2.5 miles to swim in the unheated waters of Parliament Hill Lido.

I have embraced a new technique:

  1. Swim
  2. 3 minute sauna (during which my face starts to swell, I suppose a classic reaction to being immersed in cold and then seriously hot environments, it’s a bit disconcerting as lips come back to life but it does the trick in just 3 minutes)
  3. Fumbling change and cup of tea in the changing room
  4. Stumble / jog up and down and around the Heath for 20 minutes

    Parliament Hill Lido on Thursday
    Parliament Hill Lido on Thursday

During the jog feeling returns to my feet. On Thursday this all went very smoothly, and I felt rather smug as I got home fully warm and ready for the next part of the day. Yesterday, Friday, the air temperature was 11’C, not 15′ as the day before, and I felt a brand new sensation as I started off on my jog. My teeth were chattering, chatter chatter plod plod chatter chatter plod plod. I was wearing FOUR long sleeved layers, my woolly hat and gloves. I didn’t take a single layer off til I got home.

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But I felt AMAZING ALL DAY LONG and hey that was worth half a length trying to conquer the loud chimp in my head shouting ‘OMG IT’S COLD OMG YOU’RE MAD OMG THIS IS YOUR LAST TIME’.

I’m definitely going to crack this, it’s going to take more trips swimming shorter distances and longer and faster jogs to warm up afterwards. It’s going to be more of a challenge as I’ve a break from the lido, and then a change in working patterns, but hey I’ve the whole of November and a week of December to nail this.

I’d you’d like to sponsor me, perhaps £11 to match the temperature I’d be so grateful. I’m taking part in the Aspire charity swim to swim the distance across the English Channel in support of the work they do to help stroke victims. Thank you very much.

Light sifting through the trees on the way to the top of Parliament Hill
Light sifting through the trees on the way to the top of Parliament Hill

Thank you to officials standing damp-legged & soggy-footed poolside at swimming galas

What is it that makes people become volunteers? What is it that nudges them into giving up their time? I’ve been mulling over this lots recently, as both parts of my swimming life (gala mum v lido user) need more of them.

Recently I spent the day at Southbury Road Leisure Centre, the venue of a Middlesex Swimming Winter Development Meet, aka swimming gala. There were probably about 30 of us all dressed in white and gathered in a room for the officials’ meeting before the racing began. The President of the London Region stood up after all the poolside tasks had been allocated and safety briefing given, and donned his special chains of office. (Think Mayoral chains with lots of gold and ceremony.) He wanted us to pause and thank the volunteers who had served the region for the past 5 or 10 years, attending galas at weekends, standing poolside, getting quite wet. Each long timer was presented with a certificate and a pin badge, and thanked.

These volunteers, in their 60s and 70s are people are giving back to a sport long after their own children have stopped competing. What makes them do it? Without them competitive swimming would grind to a halt. In hindsight this low key ceremony should have taken place poolside, in front of swimmers and parents.

I had a very long break from volunteering, ie from sixth form through to 18 months ago. A 20 year gap of not pulling my weight or putting anything back. Caused partly by not really knowing how the swimming system worked. Now I’m proud to be a fledgling volunteer and a trainee official.

As I see it, there are definite upsides to being an official:

  1. if you’re going to have to get up very early to drive a child to a gala you might as well keep yourself busy rather than slumping back into the car or in the spectator rows
  2. it gives you something genuinely useful to do; any parent or carer who says they can ‘work’ whilst at a gala is fibbing. It’s hot, noisy and uncomfie = not conducive to work
  3. if you do get a chance to sit down you don’t have to fight someone for a seat, you have one allocated poolside
  4. you get to know the rules even better than your child (and actually having to learn something in detail is quite fun, stretches the brain in a different way to daily life)
  5. it brings you closer to your competing child, you’re there down on the poolside, at their level, able to keep an eye on their heats
  6. you get a free meal – don’t scoff – it is a luxury to be given a meal that you haven’t thought about, shopped for, prepped, made, served and washed up. So the catering might not be cordon bleu, but hey how nice to have someone else do it for you. And meanwhile you’re not responsible for what the rest of the family eat at home.
  7. you get to give something back into the system, just as other parents officiated for your children so now it’s your turn to keep a watchful eye on a younger generation of aspiring competitors

I brought up the topic of volunteering at the National Lido Conference I attended last month. I want to find out more about volunteering; how to be a better volunteer, how to work with volunteers and how to persuade more people to take up volunteering. At the conference a man who runs an outdoor swimming lake said the most useful thing for him was to know what people could do, and what their limits are – it’s in no one’s interest to promise more than you can deliver.

I’d like to know what magic thing it is that prompts retired people like the officials I saw honoured today into carrying on joining in decades after their kids have grown up and left a sport. Thank you uber volunteers.

I’ve signed up to swim the length of the English Channel 22 miles in aid of Aspire. Why?

So why have I signed up to swim the length of the English Channel, 22 miles, in 12 weeks?

It’s a new challenge – and I like challenges

This one really caught my eye. I LOVE SWIMMING.

Aspire is a very special charity – it helps people paralysed by spinal cord injury. It gives them practical assistance, advice and support from injury to independence. There is currently no cure for spinal injury.

And they even filmed part of their enticing video at Parliament Hill Lido.

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Parliament Hill Lido – where I’m hoping to swim much of my 22 miles

The Paralympics have just opened in Rio – and I’m being reminded how awesome our Paralympians are, and how many of the athletes have come back from terrible life changing injuries or paralysis and put their determination and talents to amazing use.

I’d like to achieve something big in the pool this year and have extra impetus to swim regularly through the winter

I will never, ever, swim the English Channel* 

I want to get into shape and look and feel on top form

I am a very lucky person, and sometimes that needs to be celebrated with a marker and a milestone – I can swim, I live close to London’s most beautiful shiny bottomed Parliament Hill Lido and a host of other pools, I am able bodied, I have the most motivating and supportive of husbands and 12 year old twins egging me on, and a flexible-ish work schedule – plus the desire to do this.

For my daddy – Some years ago my daddy was struck very low by a very serious illness. Part of his rehabilitation, which involved learning to walk again, also entailed water and access to special swimming sessions. So I am also doing this in recognition, and thanks, for the teams of medics at The Royal Berks Hospital intensive care unit who gave him back to us, the physios and carers at Linden Hill who run such brilliant water therapy sessions, and the lifeguards and staff at Wantage Rec Centre where he and mummy swam on Monday nights. This challenge from Aspire has reminded me how fortunate we were all those years ago.

*I have promised my 12 year old daughter I won’t. So I won’t. For now. And probably not for ever.

If you’d like to support Aspire and my challenge please may I ask you to head over to my Just Giving page. Or if you fancy taking on this quest to swim the English Channel in your local pool sign up here.

Thank you as ever for reading.

 

So how was the 5.25am start for you? Feeding the 12 year old swimmer.

The alarm went at 5.25am. When it was dark. It was almost the middle of the night. I jumped out of bed, careful – just – not to fall over in that semi crazed comatose post-alarm-I-must-leap-up-straight-away state. I donned clothes, dashed up to check the swimmer was awake and down to make tea and toast. Not much thought , I must admit, went into how to fuel the 12 year old swimmer before her first ever early morning training session – that’s 6am – 7.30am, but I thought brown toast and a lot of jam with a glass of water could do the trick. It’s hard at that time, none of us really want to eat when we’re pretty much asleep.

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7.01am at Parliament Hill Fields Lido

We left the house and got to the pool at 5.50. By now both of us were strangely quite excited, perhaps at the newness of the situation; it may well not feel such a game in January. I drove back home, slid back into bed fully clothed and wondered what to do. 15 minutes later I was out again, and on my bike to Parliament Hill Fields lido on Hampstead Heath. If she was getting her exercise in, surely that’s what I should be doing too.

In the early mornings the lido is for width swimming only; it’s busy with swimmers ploughing up and down motorway style. But oh, you glance to the east and are rewarded with the sun emerging above the mansion block and its light glinting on the water. At bang on 7.30am the lane rope is tied onto the deck and everyone switches to swimming lengths.

Today, I got back home to be able to greet the swimmer with a pile of toast and a large banana milkshake. Next Friday will be that much more complicated, with school uniform needing to be crammed into her kit bag, a full breakfast on wheels catering service to fuel her through til lunchtime to be provided and then a dash to catch the 0811 from Finsbury Park.

The swimmer and I have been thinking about nutrition. Boy do you have to tread carefully, I really do want to do my best to give her the right things at the right time but it’s not straightforward. She needs to eat. She has wanted to eat yummy sweet things. I don’t want to over-egg the situation and tell her not to eat things or to eat other things.

But after a year of munching a cereal bar in the car and eating sweet things (cake, gutsy carb loaded puddings and banana milkshakes) when she gets back from her evening swims she’s asked for something healthier. By the time she gets back from the pool (normally 9.45pm ish) I want to go to bed not conjure up chicken breasts and broccoli (not that I think she’d go for that combo at 9.45pm).

I don’t like cereal bars, I think they’re just sweet chewy cardboard, but we should have shares in them we’ve got through so many. I’m invested instead in a heap of new ingredients and am poised to bake Nigella Lawson’s breakfast bars I’m also going to try the granola bars over on Smitten Kitchen – with thanks to my friends Vicky and Stephanie for the suggestions.

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What I’m not so sure about though is making sure she gets enough carbs after school, and protein after training. Please lovely blog readers do share your secrets and tips of how to fill a growing 12 year old – and her growing footballing and running 12 year old twin brother – with the right foods at the right time whilst holding down a job (and a life). Send me a tweet or post a reply, I’d be so grateful. Thanks for reading.