10 best outdoor swimming pools in London

Author, journalist and swimming enthusiast Jenny Landreth picks out the capital’s top 10 swimming pools

Presenting a list of the “best” outdoor pools in London suggests that there are loads to chose from and sadly that’s not the case.

Things were much better 100 years ago in the heyday of London lidos, a fact that kinda defeats the “oh but the climate” moaners. I’ve often thought a Pessimists Tour of London might be a money-spinner – “there used to be a lido here” etc.

But swimming outdoors makes you optimistic. Give it a try, see if the same works for you (and no, I don’t offer a money-back guarantee.) For people who can’t get into a bath unless it’s hot enough to strip paint, it might sound like cold water punishment. So for the softer flowers amongst you, the order of pools is significant – they get more challenging as we go.

These are all public pools, so you could do them all over the summer and call it the Landreth Swim Tour, why not. (But if you get swim hats printed, I want one.) Here goes:

1. Oasis pool, WC2

This is the smallest, hottest outdoor pool, but also the most central; a tiny slab of blue in between Holborn and Covent Garden. At 27m long it doesn’t afford much elbow room, and the buildings are packed in too, so the only sky you’ll get is an oblong right above you. Not a place for great views, but an easy start to your outdoor swimming challenge. 

2. Hampton Pool, TW12

So hot it’s practically tropical, and a very busy pool because of that. Like swimming outside but in a fleece. The pool is 36m long so you can exercise your maths brain too, working out how many lengths make a mile. The surrounds are a little suburban pub garden-ish (without the floating drunks); it’s worth taking time to sit on the café roof afterwards with a bacon baguette.

3. London Fields Lido, EC8

London Fields lido

To Hackney, beards ahoy. We’re slap bang in the middle of ‘drinking out of jam jars’ territory, which has its benefits as nearby Broadway Market is a great place to get a post-swim artisan coffee and sourdough toast. This is a 50-metre heated pool, with wide lanes good for overtaking so even when it’s busy you don’t get stuck behind anyone. Plenty of serious swimming done here, but in trendy swimwear please. (Knitted trunks not advised.)

4. Charlton Lido, SE18

Things get a little tougher here – Charlton Lido IS heated but a) minimally, which makes it good for longer swims – there’s nothing worse than sweating during a swim - and b) it’s in Charlton. Again, it’s 50m and though the pool is a classic from the 1930s, with the tiered fountains and familiar low, long original buildings, it’s been refurbed and the facilities are all brand new. Hasn’t quite found its way on to the swimming map yet, so you’ll have plenty of room.

5. Crouch End Lido, N8

Another minimally-heated outdoor pool, with surroundings that are a challenge for the design-conscious. Unusually it’s shallow at both ends and deep in the middle which means it’s good for children. Take that as a warning if you hate children. It’s in the heart of boiled wool middle-classdom, so the children will be called things like Pannecotte and Almond. 

6. Hampstead Ponds, NW5

Obviously, Hampstead Ponds are not heated except by the sun, so this is where the going gets a little tougher. They’re the only ‘natural’ pools on this list, which brings its own set of challenges. It’s more for dandling than full swim-training, and you may get visited by dipping birds and leaping fish. (I’m not keen on fish leaping about when I’m swimming, to be honest. I know it’s nature but AAAARGH! FISH IN MY FACE!) But this is an idyll – give yourself some time to relax.

7. Brockwell Lido, SE24

Classic 1930s design again, with features you’ll recognise from Charlton, and again at Parliament Hill. (You’ll be lido design experts by the end of this.) Unheated, 50 metres, laned, with a fantastic café to temper any sense of material deprivation. AND you can pay extra and use the steam room afterwards to ease any chill. Really nice on a warm evening, as the sun goes down over the pool so you swim into the twilight, smelling burgers on the barbeque.  

8. Parliament Hill Lido, NW5

Parliament Hill lido

The challenge is now really on. No fancy stuff here. The changing rooms feel a bit like old cow sheds (which suits your writer perfectly), and the pool is big, cold, and steel-lined. But if you’re doing these in order, you’ll be acclimatised by now, practically a mariner. At 61m, it’s not the largest cold water pool in London, that prize goes to Tooting. But it does have the shiniest bottom. 

9. Uxbridge Lido, UB8

Uxbridge lido

Long, low and stylish, offering a great semicircle of sky, this is a cold pool with cold showers  (unless you get a day pass to use the facilities of the Hillingdon Leisure Centre attached to the pool). There’s a separate children’s pool which keeps them out of your way – and if you want to double dip and are early enough, visit Denham Lake first (just up the road).

10. Tooting Bec Lido, SW16

The ultimate cold water pool, the largest lido in Britain, unlaned - and brilliant. My spiritual home. At the risk of proselytising like a cheap American preacher, these are my people. This might feel like a real challenge to the soft-core swimmer who likes glamorous facilities (there are none) and being told where to swim (you can go whichever direction you like). It can feel brutal on a grim day, but goodness, it’ll remind you you’re alive. And there’s a fantastic new café serving great food. Come to swim, stay for life.  

Jenny Landreth’s book, Swimming London: The 50 best pools, lidos, lakes and rivers from around the capital, is available in good bookshops, and from Hive.co.uk.

Her blog swimmingroundlondon.blogspot.co.uk reviews over 70 pools, including some truly terrible ones.

Jenny is on Twitter @jennylandreth.

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