Making waves: pop along to the Peter Pan Cup on Christmas morning

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Pan Cup

Should you be spending Christmas in the capital – perhaps taking advantage of booking offers at the London Park Grand Hyde Park – then, like it or not, you may be at a slight loss of what to do actually do on December 25th, should you fancy venturing beyond your accommodation (understandably, much of the country does, indeed, close down for the day!).

So, on Christmas morning how about checking out a, frankly, unlikely open-water swimming race in Hyde Park’s Serpentine lake? Held by the Serpentine Swimming Club, the Peter Pan Cup is a 91-metre (100-yard) event that’s taken place almost every year since 1864 and, nowadays, see participants splash their way through the water wearing Santa hats – but of course!

J M Barrie, Kensington Gardens and the Peter Pan Cup

The Peter Pan Cup itself was first presented to the race’s winner in 1904 by the legendary children’s author and playwright J M Barrie; indeed, he donated the trophy to be awarded to the winner every Christmas Day therein perpetuity. But why did Barrie get involved? Well, creator, as he was, of Peter Pan and author of the original stories and plays set in Neverland, he had a strong connection to Kensington Gardens (the Serpentine’s location ensures it effectively splits the former and Hyde Park into two separate Royal parks), given that his stories were, in part, set in the Gardens.

So much so, that ever since spring 1912, when it ‘magically’ appeared overnight in the spot it still occupies today, Kensington Garden’s bronze statue of Peter Pan has been a huge draw for kids – of all ages. To be found just a few steps inside the park’s northern border near the Bayswater Road (where Barrie lived and from which he’d take a daily stroll around the Gardens), it’s supposedly located exactly where Peter Pan lands, following his flight away from his nursery, in Barrie’s book The Little White Bird. Immediately recognisable, thanks to its tall conical appearance (resembling a tree stump) and the fact Peter’s playing pan pipes and is accompanied by carved fairies, squirrels, rabbits and mice, it truly is a charming spot in the Gardens.

With all the Gardens’ Pan-ish connections then, it seems more than fitting the cup is so identified with Barrie, not least as its first presentation occurred the same year his Peter Pan play debuted in the West End. Indeed, Barrie himself presented the Peter Pan Cup all the way up to 1932, after which it was presented by long-time club member Albert Greenbury, whom would go on to serve as the club’s president for 20 years; no surprise then that it’s still presented by members of Greenbury’s family.

The race

The race itself tends to start at the same time every Christmas morning (9am), with competitors diving into the lake from its south bank, not far from the Serpentine Café and not that much of a walk away from many of the restaurants in Hyde Park’s vicinity.

With its long history, the race has produced some memorable moments. For instance, there wasn’t a race at all in 1935 (it had to be postponed), owing to the lake icing over – all the same, a number of would-be-competitors, perhaps foolishly, broke through the ice to ‘enjoy’ a dip. Worthy of note, too, is the fact among the few members to have won the race twice is one Mr F W Maggs; a butler by trade, he first won the trophy in 1920 and had to wait 35 years to do so again – when somewhat incredibly he was 71 years-old.

Needless to say, spectators are more than welcome to join in the fun (not least those staying for the Holidays at the likes of 4 star hotels in Paddington) but, do note, if – for some crazy reason – the seasonal spirit takes you and you fancy getting involved, you won’t be able to. Participants can only be from the swimming club – for two reasons. First, for the sake of fairness, they must have competed in the club’s entire ‘winter series’ of races, and second, for safety purposes, participants must be acclimatised to swimming in such potentially cold waters – the lake’s temperature can drop to below 4°C (40°F) at this time of year!