Bracing certainty: winter swimming on the Heath
Why do some take to the freezing waters of the Ladies’ Pond all year round? Dan Carrier finds out
14 November, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
A snowball fight at the Ladies’ Pond. Photo: Ruth Corney
LOOKING radiantly alive, you can spot them a mile off in the early morning in the cafés around Swain’s Lane. Rosy-cheeked and wearing hats and coats that look a little heavier than necessary, they are the year-round pond swimmers – the dedicated group who wake each morning and head to Hampstead Heath for the extraordinary experience of plunging into cold water.
Now a group of writers who swear by their daily constitutionals have penned a collection of essays about life at the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond through the seasons.
Contributors include Margaret Drabble, Esther Freud, Deborah Moggach and Lou Stoppard. Stoppard, a writer for magazines such as GQ, speaks of the joys of joining the rather exclusive year-rounder club – and how she earned herself the moniker almost by accident, having been seduced into pond swimming and then not being able to quit as the days drew in.
She says she first started at the ponds to try to overcome a fear of “inky depth” and wanted to overcome it. She set herself the task of swimming once a week – and when September slipped into October, October into November, giving up felt like defeat.
Year-rounders will tell you the incremental drops in temperature mean if you manage to go regularly your body adjusts. It’s the rain, the dark and the cold outside the pond that offers the real challenge to the person seeking a 365-day swim record.
“The coldest part is the ground right before the water, unkind concrete on naked soles,” she says, adding: “Dithering on the ladder is impossible; the cold will get to you.”
It was partly the glorious feeling of the water that made Stoppard unable to give up a dip.
“The water is silky. It’s thicker than other water. It sticks to the skin, laps your body and holds you, suspended,” she writes.
“You cut through it, as if stirring cream. It’s nearly black, you can barely make out your limbs and sometimes as you peel off your wet costume there are mud stains on your flesh, but you always feel cleaner when you get out than before you got in. A shower feels like a shame – that would just be normal water.”
The Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association has a register of 1,348 names of winter swimmers, though they estimate perhaps 150 swim regularly and right through the winter.
“The pond women are alert and witchy,” she adds. “You find them half-naked, clutching quick-dry towels and fuzzy bobble hats, which they keep on while swimming to avoid losing body heat. They are mostly older women: a gaggle of different bodies, curves, rolls and wise wrinkles.”
An intrepid swimmer takes to the ‘inky grey’ water
Eighty-two-year-old Anne Burley says she never meant to become a winter swimmer – it just happened: “I just thought, I’ll go on for a bit longer. Then by the time it gets really, really cold your body gets used to it.”
And as well as the adrenaline that cold water swimming sends flushing through the system, it’s
a sure-fire way of forgetting life’s troubles.
“The water is fantastic for anxiety – when you swim in such low temperatures your brain is lurched out of any spiralling, forced only to focus on the cold,” she adds. “Movement is the only way to keep going – and the only way out.”
Nell Frizzle fell so hard for the pond she decided to work part-time as a lifeguard. Having been a regular she knew the lifeguards and one day it was suggested she train as one too.
“I am a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, swimmer-turned-lifeguard,” she writes. “I have been educated in a side of the pond that as a swimmer I had never known – the wildlife, the women and the wild, night-time goings-on.”
She describes the creatures the pond is shared with, from the moorhens and crayfish to carp. One time, lifeguards discovered a very large snake – a much more challenging proposition than the small colony of water snakes that are rarely seen.
“It had been dumped I suppose, by someone who realised a seven-foot python could actually eat you,” she remembers.
“It was just metres from where people sunbathe on the meadow. It had been living there; it had made a nest. But the cold must have got it, in the end.”
Her job has made her close to the natural world: she can read the clouds above the Heath and accurately predict how the day’s weather will pan out. She has watched the thousands who have experienced the pond, people of all shapes, sizes, abilities; people with problems, people without, of fractious behaviour as queues grow on hot days.
But until the night-time fence-jumpers arrive, there is a period each day when the pond returns to being only the domain of the lifeguard.
“After dark, as the thousands of women that have passed through the gate finally make their way home, as the pinky sky turns to inky grey, as the surface of the pond falls still and silent; that is when we take back our pond,” she writes.
“As night falls, we slip into the water and swim out across the mirror. As the water turns black in the dimming light, we open our eyes beneath the surface and suddenly we are not swimmers any more, but astronauts – star sailors.
“We are floating through a silky, thick black, as bottomless as the night sky.”
If you can’t quite manage a bracing dip and are facing the long wait for the thermometer to creep back to a more civilised level, this wonderful collection will remind you why the ponds create such a sense of love and loyalty from those who use them.
• At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond. Published by Daunt Books, £9.99