Until you get your nose quite close to a fitness pursuit, you never know what kind of passion it arouses. Swimmers are like runners who’ve grown up, or cyclists who’ve found peace. They talk more about meditation than performance; they do not fixate on equipment or fancy clothes; there’s a bit of a hippy undertow about the body communing with the water. But to find all this out, you have to get in.

I’ve been to tons of lidos, but until I went to London Fields lido with Becky Horsbrugh, I’d never swum in one, for two reasons. One, when it’s warm enough, it’s always too crowded. Two, I don’t like getting wet.

Horsbrugh is a writer and swimming teacher, and also a long-distance swimmer. She’s just returned from a 16km swim in Bangladesh where she is known by the press as the Mermaid of the Bangla Channel. She has an infectious calm and radiates trustworthiness. You would not want to disappoint the Mermaid, but likewise, were you to disappoint her, she would address it with a note of encouragement.

My natural style is a stately kind of breaststroke, head out of the water, as if on red alert for predators, or trying not to mess up mascara. I had no real intention of changing it. My other objection, apart from the water, was the boredom. It turns out these things were related, who knew?

“You’ll go much faster if you put your head in to breathe out, and bring it out to breathe in,” said the Mermaid. “That’s fine,” I said. “I’m not in a rush.” She tried another tack. “It’s actually not brilliant for your spine.” OK: I tried it. Turns out the thing I hate getting wet the most is my eyeballs. The Mermaid gives me her goggles. That’s much better. That’s faster, more comfortable, more efficient, but most of all, more immersive. Once you reimagine yourself as a person whose head is meant to be underwater, just popping up for oxygen, everything changes. The world becomes the water, the non-water world fades away. The chore becomes an escape, a moment outside time.

“You can refine your technique infinitely with swimming – that’s why it’s more interesting than running. There are so many elements, from the angle your hands hit the water to the angle your head comes out of the water, and everything in between. You could work on it for ever,” said the Mermaid. There were, undoubtedly, flaws in the way my hands cut into the water; I could already begin to feel the insufficiency of my leg-kick, a desultory move just to make sure no limbs were left behind. The flip from prayer hands to pushing the water away was plain clumsy. But you can’t take on too many new skills in one go, and the revelation of my first new get-your-head-wet trick was engrossing.

There’s a beautiful glitch in the universe, with swimming; body considerations – age, weight, shape – which ought to determine grace and speed, in the water don’t mean squat. What a thing! Quite tiring, though.

What I learned

Take a big breath and notice how you float – your lungs give you natural buoyancy. Go to swimming.org to find a teacher near you

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