It was the news I’d been waiting for, and I discovered it by accident on the last day of September. An announcement by Saltash Councillor Hilary Frank was made on her Facebook page: “I’m pleased (and relieved) to say that the Saltash Leisure Centre will re-open by mid-October, thanks to a funding package by Cornwall Council” she said.
At the beginning of March 2020, as I do every year, I’d renewed my annual membership at the Leisure Centre which is located conveniently around the corner from my house. I’d been swimming there for the past 17 years and it had become part of my weekly routine. Back when I started, I’d been trying to lose some stubborn baby weight after having my daughter. An unflattering bikini photo taken of me on holiday had prompted me to take drastic action. So, armed with a Weightwatchers book and an iron-willed determination I began my quest, and would swim early in the morning 6 times a week. Within 6 months of eating less and swimming a hundred miles or more, I proudly reached my goal and shifted those unwanted pounds.
By this year I’d still maintained my weight loss and had managed to wean myself down to 4 swims a week. Little did I realise back then on the 21st March, that this Friday would be the last time I’d be allowed to take this highly enjoyable and invigorating morning ritual, which had become such an intrinsic part of my everyday life.
During my years of swimming, I met several other habitual swimmers like me. They ranged from twenty somethings, up to Vera who at 83 and was still swimming every Monday and Friday, despite being almost blind and needing support from the staff to assist her in and out of the pool. For these regulars it wasn’t just about getting their daily exercise. It was equally as important for them to maintain contact with others, and their frequent chats, friendly smiles and laughter always made my morning experience a joyous one to look forward to, rather than a rigorous chore to dread. For many people it became a necessary lifeline with none of their own family living close by.
Margaret had time off when she had her cataract’s done, Pat had a hip replacement, Eric told us of his latest trip to see his beloved grandchildren, or which holiday he was about to venture on. Sharon would be waiting outside the door at 6.30 on the dot every morning, come rain, ice or snow. Sue, the most loyal Plymouth Raiders fan I’ve ever met, would keep me posted on the latest Raiders gossip, and we knew all the lifeguards and staff’s names by now. Other people came for a while and then disappeared, never to be seen again. Maybe swimming just wasn’t right for them. The pool was the place where our community really did unite, and the Centre gave its members invaluable support, and many new and long-lasting friendships were formed here.
On the 14th October at 8.40 my prebooked time slot (things were going to be very different with Covid restrictions still upon us), I was shown around the pool by a very helpful concierge wearing a plastic visor, who explained exactly where and what I would be permitted to do from now on.
I must admit that when I first stepped into the water it was with a little trepidation. “Would I still be able to swim like I had before?” I thought to myself. When you take into consideration the fact that I hadn’t even learnt to swim properly until I was over 40, it doesn’t sound quite as silly. Until that point, I’d spent endless hours at my children’s swimming club galas, enviously watching the young people gracefully swimming up and down, and I’d decided then it was time I learnt to swim properly too. It seems that learning a new skill as an adult doesn’t happen quite as easily as learning as a child. But I’d persevered, and now I too had become a ‘proper’ swimmer and have since swum thousands of miles myself.
So, on this long-awaited October morning, I stepped into the deliciously warm water, put my swimming cap on (with much more hair to stuff in now than before Covid). Goggles on, nose clip on, and off I went. My first plunge under the water in almost 7 months, a long push off the wall and glide, then six strokes before breaking the water’s surface. It felt totally amazing. And no – I hadn’t forgotten how to swim at all! It felt gloriously familiar, like I was coming home and being enveloped in a smooth, silky blanket. After the first length my muscle memory instinctively knew what to do and my arms slipped back into the rhythmic repetition of the strokes, and it felt as if I’d never been away at all.
I’m happy to say that after more than 6 months on furlough, the Leisure Centre staff are as pleased to be back working, as we are to be allowed our daily constitutionals once more. We feel so much better since the Centre’s return and it’s truly been a joy to catch up with the other regulars as they all trickle back in. I’m now keeping my fingers crossed that the pool sees enough public usage in the forthcoming months, so it can continue to keep its doors open to us all in these new, strange and uncertain Covid times ahead.
P.S. Since I wrote this article, Lockdown number 2 has been enforced for a month, so sadly the Saltash Leisure Centre has had to close its doors to its members once again. Hopefully, this time it will be for a short period only before we can all resume our daily exercise yet again.