Hackney swimmers reveal how water brings communities together

Debbie Croydon (L) and Audrey Livingston (R) at Hackney's West Reservoir Centre

Debbie Croydon (L) and Audrey Livingston (R) met at a triathlon workshop a few years ago. Last summer, they founded ‘Soul Swimmers’, a community of female swimmers from Black and Asian communities bound together by their mutual passion for wild swimming. - Credit: WaterAid/ Nikki McClarron

Hackney outdoor swimmers have revealed the reasons why they swim as part of a new WaterAid project celebrating the power of water.

People drawn to the borough's cold waters at London Fields Lido and Stoke Newington's West Reservoir Centre shared how swimming has provided friendships and community during the pandemic. 

At London Fields Lido life-long swimmer Laurie Firth, 38, highlighted how the pandemic made her realise how much she missed having a swimming community. 

Laurie said: “My connection with outdoor swimming came off the back of a relationship break-up. It felt so powerful to connect with a new community and be in my body and immersed in water, rather than in my head.”

“When the lido reopened, I realised it was the community as much as the swimming that had been absent from my life. Swimming is such a bonding activity. Even if people are at very different levels in terms of strength and speed, just standing in the shallows or the showers and talking pre- or post-swim is as important as the swim itself.”

Laurie Firth at London Fields Lido.

Laurie Firth at London Fields Lido. - Credit: WaterAid/ Nikki McClarron

Laurie's swim teacher, Henry Fincher, 38, is also featured in WaterAid's portrait gallery. He shared that he took up the activity when he was younger after his GP told him it would help his pigeon chest,  a condition that causes the sternum and rib cage to protrude outwards.

After a 10-year hiatus, he gave open-water swimming a try in Greece and hasn’t looked back.

London Fields Lido swim teacher Henry Fincher, 38.

London Fields Lido swim teacher Henry Fincher, 38. - Credit: WaterAid/ Nikki McClarron

Most Read

As a swimming teacher, he adapted his sessions online during the pandemic and revealed the extreme lengths he went to take a dip during a period when lidos were closed.

Swimmer's back.

Henry adapted his swimming sessions online during the pandemic. - Credit: WaterAid/ Nikki McClarron

Henry said: Some of us went crazy enough to buy large paddling pools and tie ourselves to the end and swim on the spot.

"I ran Zoom sessions for swimmers seven days a week, which I’m still running over a year later. We were so grateful when open water venues reopened as it meant we could see friends and make new ones under that shared experience."

Lidos reopened on March 29 after months closed due to the pandemic. 

A man swimming in London Fields Lido.

Henry says swimming clears his head and thinks there is a meditative aspect to it. - Credit: WaterAid/ Nikki McClarron

Meanwhile at West Reservoir Centre, Londoners Audrey Livingston, 57, and Debbie Croydon, 60 are bringing a community of women swimmers from Black and Asian communities together. 

The pair founded Soul Swimmers last summer and the group regularly meets for wild swimming at the centre, located on 23 acres of water in Hackney. West Reservoir opened all-year-round during the pandemic to cater for a rise in demand for outdoor swimming. 

The two women were inspired to set up the group following conversations over coffee during the pandemic, about issues like lockdown, George Floyd and Black Lives Matter.

Debbie Croydon (L) and Audrey Livingston (R) at Hackney's West Reservoir. 

Debbie Croydon (L) and Audrey Livingston (R) at Hackney's West Reservoir. - Credit: WaterAid/ Nikki McClarron

They noticed a lack of Black and Asian women in sports such as swimming. According to Sport England, 95 per cent of black adults and 80 per cent of black children in England do not swim at all. 

Debbie said: “We often talked about how there were too few of us in sports such as triathlon and swimming, but it is changing, thank goodness.

"My idea was to set up a swim group for women like us. I wanted to get women learning to swim and into open water. Some children do have lessons but often they don’t continue because their parents don’t swim or don’t have any interest. I thought maybe we could create some interest.”

Audrey added: “I tend to swim to keep fit physically and mentally, open water cold swimming is great to still the mind. It is relaxing and gives you a sense of freedom that makes you forget where you are.”

Audrey Livingston says she tends to swim to keep fit physically and mentally.

Audrey Livingston says she tends to swim to keep fit physically and mentally. - Credit: WaterAid/ Nikki McClarron

Reasons To Swim is a portrait gallery project collated by WaterAid. It marks the launch of the water charity's Swim Marathon challenge, which starts in August and invites swimmers to take the plunge and support the international charity by swimming 13 or 26 miles over 12 weeks. 

The unique series was created by London-based photographer Nikki McClarron. 

Lizzie Griffiths, WaterAid’s events fundraising officer, said: “We are so fortunate to have water available at the turn of a tap, yet one in ten people around the world do not have clean drinking water close to home, impacting on their health, education and livelihoods.

"By taking part in Swim Marathon this summer, you can help transform lives by bringing clean water to communities around the world.” 

Laurie Firth. Laurie, 38, has enjoyed swimming all her life.

Laurie Firth. Laurie, 38, has enjoyed swimming all her life. - Credit: WaterAid/ Nikki McClarron

Learn more at: www.wateraid.org/uk/get-involved/fundraising/swimming