I have been fortunate to swim in some wonderful places, but nowhere compares to the chilly, slightly muddy patch of water found on Hampstead Heath, known as Kenwood Ladies’ Pond. It’s the place where the inner drone of everyday worries and grumbles magically disappear and where you emerge shivering, full of happiness, back into a world that always seems a bit more wonderful than it did before.
Kenwood Ladies’ Pond is 89 years old, being opened to the public in 1926. Until then, women had only limited access to the other swimming ponds of the Heath, which were open to male swimmers only for most of the week.
A number of people ask “why do you need a pond for women only?”, and I suppose my answer would be that for many women, perhaps it isn’t considered strictly necessary. But it is a place where we dress and undress together, laugh, share ideas, debate, dance, celebrate the seasons, bring food to share, pin articles, swap books…and sometimes even swim! It has a something that just isn’t there at the Mixed Pond, which always feels rather more body conscious and ‘see and be seen’. I don’t know what the atmosphere at the Men’s Pond is, ah to be a fly on the wall there (hmm, possibly that sounds a little cheeky)!
This year will be my third year of winter swimming, officially recognised when the water temperature drops to 12 degrees centigrade or below, but unofficially when I get out my cheating equipment of boots and gloves made from wetsuit material to take the edge off the chill.
Winter swimming is a very different kettle of fish to the long, lazy trawls round the pond in summer, when the trees are a riot of different greens and the coots are gently terrorising the moorhens when they get too close to their nests. But it’s gorgeous. At the start of the winter season, you wade through pools of leaves, watching the trees in various states of undressing. As it progresses, you learn to navigate the ice patches, plotting your route between noisy seagulls, remembering to breathe properly and reminding yourself to keep moving your arms, whilst weird tingles strike at will. On early mornings, when the mist is clearing and the sky is lit up red with the first rays of sun, the smoke curls across the water and it’s almost impossible to believe you’re in London and not in a fantasy book.
Then, you emerge onto the deck, pink and blotchy and slightly mad, to find a bucket of hot water waiting for you. Hot water that has never felt so wonderful, and you feel sorry for everyone who hasn’t dragged themselves out of bed in the dark to hike up a hill to get in a giant freezing puddle, because it’s bloody amazing.
To find out more about swimming all over Hampstead Heath, try Caitlin Davies’s wonderful book Taking the Waters: A Swim Around Hampstead Heath.
To find out more about the Ladies’ Pomd, visit the website of the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association, http://www.klpa.org.uk.