It has now been 11 months since my swimming life has been damaged, and 6 months since I lost my job in Bournemouth. I moved to North West London in June instead of South London as originally planned, mainly because the train service is too bad there with most lines only running every half an hour in South London. North London is dominated by TfL-run services, including Tube and Overground, while South London is dominated by National Rail services run by franchised operators, including South Western Railway, Southern, Thameslink and Southeastern which deliver much worse services and charged much more expensive than TfL outside Zone 1.
Life in London
It’s much better living in London than in Bournemouth, because of the following reasons:
London has the best public transport in the UK. Trains and buses run 24 hours a day, which means I don’t need act like a Cinderella who I must say goodbye before midnight. 24-hour Thameslink services connect my home to two airports, Luton and Gatwick, from where low-cost carriers fly to various European cities where I can do my orienteering world ranking races.
Also, buses run frequently from dawn to midnight. It’s hard to find a corridor where a bus only appears every half an hour or more even in the evening. On the A5 where I live, buses run every 2-3 minutes until midnight. The vast amount of bus and train routes form a network which alternative routes can easily be found even if a route fails – the reason that TfL doesn’t provide replacement buses for rail closures within Zone 1.
Moreover, train fares in London can sometimes be cheap. Although London is widely reported to have the most expensive public transport in the world, it is because the comparison is made in Zone 1. However, travel outside Zone 1 is much cheaper. The off-peak Oyster or contactless fare anywhere on the Overground line between Clapham Junction and Stratford – a 29 km journey round half of London, is just £1.60, which is reduced to £1.05 if a suitable Railcard is added into the Oyster card. Another extreme example of cheap train fare is Willesden Green to Amersham, costing only £2.10 (£1.40 with a Railcard-discounted Oyster) for a 32 km train journey from an inner suburb all the way out to the Home Counties outside the M25 – cheaper than a single stop in Central London.
In contrast, in Bournemouth, most bus routes only run every 15 minutes or worse in the daytime, reduced to every 30 minutes or worse and without express services in the evening, with the only frequent routes 1/1a/1b (Bournemouth – Christchurch), m1/m2 (Poole – Bournemouth), 5/5a (Bournemouth – Kinson) and U1 (Bournemouth University campus shuttle). Even these frequent routes, which runs up to every 3-5 minutes daytime, they only run every 15 minutes or worse in the evening. The former overnight services (N1/N2) have gone since the pandemic, leaving the whole conurbation devoid of any night transport. Both Bournemouth and Southampton airports don’t have useful low-cost routes to European cities, which means if I want to fly abroad, I will need to spend a few hours to get to Gatwick or Luton airport, and possibly a very expensive hotel stay for a night for an early flight out / late night flight back to/from Gatwick.
Better orienteering opportunities
The orienteering clubs in London, London Orienteering Klubb (LOK) in North London, South London Orienteers (SLOW) in South London, Dartford Orienteers (DFOK) in South East London and Mole Valley Orienteering Club (MV) in South West London organise park races on Tuesday evenings. It fits in my schedule well as the swimming pool I use, Parliament Hill Fields Lido, is closed on Tuesday evenings while opens on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings.
Of course clubs elsewhere also organise local events in the evening, for example, Wessex Night League in the winter, but the lack of evening transport in those areas meant that I could only participate in just a few of those races (mainly those close to railway stations).
On weekends, I normally travel to regional events. However, again due to reason of transport, I can attend much more races now living in London compared to when I lived in Bournemouth. There are about a dozen lines out of London to the Home Counties, while there is only one line passing Bournemouth, which can transfer to two other lines in Southampton (one towards Salisbury and Bristol, another towards Portsmouth and Brighton) and another line in the opposite direction in Dorchester (towards Yeovil and Bristol).
There is generally no problem travelling a Saturday, however, on Sunday, trains start late and a lot of buses don’t run at all, which limited me to only do races close to the South West Main Line and West Coastway lines on Sunday morning, and races in the South West were generally out of reach for me. For example, the first north-westbound train from Salisbury towards the direction of Bristol departs 10:27 Sunday morning, which is too late for most Sunday races along the line, and if I go westward from Bournemouth and transfer to a northbound train at Dorchester towards Yeovil, I can’t catch the 08:17 train arriving from the first train from Bournemouth and the next train is 3 hours later, 11:17, which is already too late for everything in the region. Living in London, there are a dozen of lines for me to find races along which means it’s much easier to find one suitable for me.
Better swim training opportunities
There are a number of lidos in London. 3 of them are unheated during winter: Tooting Bec Lido (91 m long, member-only during winter), Parliament Hill Fields Lido (61 m long) and Brockwell Lido (50 m long), while there are also a few heated one as well such as London Fields Lido (50 m long) and Charlton Lido (50 m long). In contrast, there are no such things anywhere in or around Bournemouth – the closest 50 m outdoor pool is Guildford Lido.
I can’t do my training well in indoor pools as they are too hot, and training in a small 25 m pool isn’t as good as in a standard pool as well due to the increased number of turns.
Also, Ray Gibbs, a good swim coach offering 1-1 video technique sessions, is based in East London as well that it will be practical for me to do lessons with him if I live in London instead of elsewhere.
One thing that I have certainly missed is sea swimming, but it seems that there isn’t a place in the UK where I can do both (unheated outdoor pool swimming and sea swimming). As it has been proven, from my failure last year, that doing sea swimming only without a training partner doesn’t help my sea swimming challenges, and competitive open water swimmers train mostly in pools as well, I have to give up sea swimming training completely at this moment unless I can work out a schedule to get to Brighton for it on weekdays.
Better job opportunities
It’s undoubtedly much easier to get a software development job in London compared to everywhere else in the country.
More chance to meet friends
Nearly all my friends who moved from Hong Kong to the UK end up in London and its surrounding commuter area. It’s too far from Bournemouth to visit them frequently, but living in London I can meet them a few times per month.
My plan before I failed everything
My life goal can be summerised in a sentence:
To become a transport professional leveraging my technology skills, while performing at the elite level in 2 sports (1 at international level, 1 at national level) at the same time
For my professional development, my plan was to work in a software development role in the public transport industry for 2 years, then to study a masters degree in transport planning and become a transport planner afterwards.
For my sports, one of my sports which I am already performing at a high level is trail orienteering. I have already reached the top in Hong Kong, having won the national championship a few years ago and qualified for the national team for a few years, and now I’m aiming to improve my performance to the international level.
I hope that open water swimming can be my second sport which I can perform at a national level. Unfortunately, unlike orienteering, I can hardly find clubs or people which support my goal to become a national-level swimmer, therefore I have made little progress in terms of my swimming in the recent few years. The pathway in England is to do the regional championship (e.g. London Region), and the first 3 finishers in each age group (e.g. 19+) are qualified to the National Age Group Championships. I believe that if I can get the appropriate coaching, I may be able to get there in a few years’ time.
What I think now
For my career, although it is easy to find a PHP developer role in London, it is not easy to find a PHP developer role in the transport industry in London. The obvious biggest employer in London, Transport for London, uses .NET for its technology stack which I have completely no knowledge about. If I just find a random job in the market, although it’s likely I can earn big money, it will not help my career development (to become a transport planner) at all.
Another possibility is to start my own software business, which is also good for my career development if I can have business with transport companies, however, I haven’t got an idea yet how I can obtain profit while staying price-competitive with cheap overseas developers, compared to being employed.
My Channel failure last year is still cursing me. I has since then been scared of rough water and now only swim in calm water. And I feel really sad about myself after my friends swim the Channel one by one this year, Allan McPherson, then my goddess Edie Hu, and coming soon Li Ling Yung. One thing that they have in common is that, they are all much faster than me.
Also, I don’t have the courage to try it again as I don’t have any confidence to make it if I encounter similar conditions again, unless I become a much faster swimmer (my pilot told me that I would have got across if I was faster), unlike Sophie Gasson who swam it in a straight line this year after got swept away from the tide last year.
I also have a few other channels in my bucket list, however, some of them have a speed qualification criterion that I can’t achieve at this moment so they are out of reach, and I really need to become a fast competitive swimmer in order to swim channels.
Training is also an issue as well. It is impossible to do any sea swimming training in London and, if I have a full-time job, it’s unlikely that I will have time to get to Brighton to do my sea swimming after work, and my weekends are reserved for orienteering as well (in Hong Kong, I can do sea swimming in the morning, and go orienteering in the afternoon, or vice versa on weekends – seldom possible in the UK), so I won’t be able to get enough training in both pools and the sea unless I give up my job again by then when I become fast enough to swim channels. (It won’t be a problem if I run my own business though.)
Getting back to my goal now. I will need to join a London-based club in order to get qualified through the London Region. However, I haven’t found a club which is suitable for my ability and training needs yet. I only swim freestyle without competency in backstroke / butterfly (I can’t even get two legal lengths done in these strokes.) and I train solely for open water races and 800 m / 1500 m freestyle races, but I haven’t found a club close to where I live which specifically trains for these.
The only people I know are in South London Swimming Club, however it is in the opposite side of London to where I live (the main reason I looked at South London first before finally settling in North London due to transport availability), where I need to take a long Thameslink ride to get there (which isn’t even open on Sunday mornings when the club meets take place). Also, its pool is scheduled to be closed and renovated in the coming winter which gives me uncertainty to join the club as well.
I am training on my own now but I really want a team to do training with – a team which trains regularly in open water competitively. Back in early 2021 when the pools were closed under the pandemic, I trained with an unofficial team, mainly composed of triathletes, at the docks in Tsing Yi and I eventually got a good result in a race afterwards.
Although I was in the elite class in sprint orienteering in Hong Kong, I find it hopeless for me to get there in the United Kingdom. In the British Sprint Championships, the A-final in the open class is dubbed the Elite-final, but I can’t even get into the B-final.
In trail orienteering, I am still working to get myself to the level of the British team, however, I think I have hit a barrier as I didn’t understand what’s wrong in the world championship. Also, the chance for me to do trail orienteering in the UK is very limited, and if I have a full-time job, it will be very hard for me to take affordable flights to participate in weekend overseas races which can fit into a standard Monday – Friday office work schedule. Surface travel isn’t a viable option too, as there are no affordable sleeper trains (like the one between Stockholm – Hamburg) between the UK and the continent.
Other sports and interests
I have interest in a few other sports, including sailing, diving and triathlon. However, due to time constraints I have no longer sailed since 2019, when most of my time for sailing has been used for swimming instead.
For diving, I’m mostly interested in warmer waters where I don’t need a wetsuit, so it’s unlikely that I will dive a lot in the UK except in the rare occasions when the English Channel goes above 20°C.
I have done my first triathlon and will continue do so if my race schedule allows, however, my main training will remain in swimming and orienteering, with triathlon just as a cross-training.
I also hope that I can move to continental Europe in the future as the UK has many things which I consider archaic and I don’t like. These mainly include the public transport which the Tory government refuses to fund properly, resulting in it much more expensive than the continent (compare our ever-rising train fares, and the 9€ offer in Germany) and much worse coverage especially on Sundays rendering it useless for leisure travel, the lack of complete metrication that the archaic system of miles and yards is still used on the roads, and an England-specific point of lacking the “freedom to roam” which allows us to go into the wilderness for camping, or go into an inland lake for swimming, which exists in Scotland or in Scandinavia.
If I can move to the continent I will need to learn the language used there. However, as I don’t have any ties to the EU, which the UK is no longer a member of it, I doubt if it is possible at all. I am in the UK as a direct result of Her Majesty offering visas to Hongkongers when Beijing breached the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
I have really no idea what my future will be. It’s so hard to work out a lifestyle for me to achieve everything listed above as I will no longer make any sacrifices to my life in order to train for a challenge. I need a way to set up my work and schedule that I can train for everything I have planned, to become a transport professional, international-level orienteer and a national-level swimmer, however I don’t really have a sense of security now. For me it’s black or white, all or nothing. I only have satisfaction if I achieve 100% of what I want, not a bit less. Or shall I give up all my hopes and dreams instead?