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London Fields in winter

A hot day does strange things to people in this country. London Fields, for example, becomes a mass of half-naked people drinking rose wine straight from the bottle, or lying limp on blankets. Barbecue smoke hangs over the fields until people straggle home. Before they go they pile mountains of rubbish by the bins (or just leave it on the grass if they are really lazy). It’s like a festival, with that same atmosphere of sprawling abandon.

 But in winter the crowds are somewhere else. Even the park bench drunks must be holed up in warm pubs. Only the stalwarts use the park: the local kids’ football team, the odd jogger, dogs on leads and swimmers like myself in the heated Lido. It’s a beautiful time of year. The bare London plane trees wait out another winter (they’ve been there since the 1890s, they’re used to it) and the smell of wood smoke makes it easier to imagine the park’s long history. The fields were first recorded in 1540. Market porters and drovers used to graze their animals there, a resting point between Epping Forest and Essex and the final leg of the journey to the meat market at Smithfield or Slaughter Street in Brick Lane. Long before swimming pools and rose wine and budgie smugglers.

Several things cross my mind as I’m paddling up and down the near-deserted pool, manned by two lifeguards: Firstly, this is the first swim I’ve had since November, despite paying a monthly membership, so it’s a seventy-five pound swim. Secondly, it probably is worth about seventy-five pounds, because there is a lot of staff for just a handful of swimmers, not to mention all the power being generated (and where is that winter roof we were promised? Surely this pool is pumping out enough heat to keep a street of houses warm?) And finally, what on earth would those drovers think of us today, swimming down a huge, steamy bathtub on a freezing February afternoon?

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