Before I moved to America I swam nearly every day in the Highgate Ladies Pond on the east side of Hampstead Heath. The pond, unheated & home to ducks & plentiful aquatic life, looks a lot like murky brown soup. Somehow this doesn’t detract from its appeal.
I was determined to get at least one swim in this trip, so on Sunday morning we palmed the infants off on C’s husband P, whilst C & I walked to the Pond from Highgate Village, down Merton Lane, past the ice cream van,
and right onto the shady narrow lane that edges the Heath. It’s here that the transition from urban noise to bucolic tranquility is complete:
There’s been swimming on the Heath since the 1860s and today there are three natural swimming ponds, fed by the River Fleet which runs underground, south from Kenwood House underneath all three ponds.
The Corporation of London tried to argue for the closure of the ponds in 2004, citing water quality & maintenance issues. Defeated by public opinion, the ponds remain gloriously open, with the Ladies & Men’s Ponds being the UK’s only life-guarded open-water swimming facilities open to the public every day of the year.
As you turn off the lane into the Ladies Pond grove, the path passes a tree encircled sunbathing lawn where women joyfully roll down their swimsuits & doff their bikini tops to dry off in the weak sunshine.
At the end of this path is the entrance to the Pond itself. A thrust out pontoon houses the facilities: lifeguards’ hut, loos and disabled hoist. There is an open air changing room with narrow wooden benches & simple hooks for bags & frocks. No lockers, no privacy.
Don’t be taken in by the sign below: 20C is bloody freezing. The pond is silted up, so you have to enter from ladders down into the water. It’s deep, so there’s no choice but to launch yourself into the water, swearing under your breath or shrieking, depending upon temperament. The truly hardy swallow dive but I am a lesser woman, and edge my body off the ladder, holding my breath as the cold bites into my fingers & toes.
You can’t stop suspended in the water: the cold takes your breath away. The only solution to strike out forcefully, swimming forward to acclimatise as quickly as possible.
There are lifebuoys floating off towards the sides, for grabbing onto after treading water whilst chatting becomes exhausting, but these are for the dilettantes. Proper Pond swimmers head for the far end, scything through the water, trying hard not to drink in any of the murk. I fall somewhere in between, adopting a leisurely breast stroke, usually in tandem with a girlfriend I’ve persuaded to the Pond, handily forgetting to mention just how bloody cold it is.
For me the pleasure comes in a complete abandonment of London: apart from the planes above on the Heathrow flight path, one could be anywhere, but least of all a scant four miles from Oxford Circus. Occasionally I catch a flash of cobalt, as one of the resident kingfishers flies by, sometimes a heron perches on the fallen tree at the far end, eyeing lunch, and always there are mallards tipping their bottoms in the air & courting dragonflies wheeling above.
C & I swam six lengths of the Pond, we reckon about 600 metres, before admitting defeat and hauling ourselves up the slippery, rope clad ladder to the dock. We dripped brown water on our way to the lawn, where we stripped to the waist, and basked on an ancient, faded towel in the 27C sunshine.
As we lazily chatted and flicked hoverflies off our skin, we watched the women around us. There is nothing, absolutely nothing as reassuring as the display of female bodies at the Pond. There is all female life there, in all its lumpy, bumpy, cellulite-y, hairy, gorgeous variety.
We were so lost in contemplation that we lost track of time, before coming to our senses, removing bits of pondweed from our cleavages as we speedily pulled on shorts & tops and marched south on the Heath, past the Fishing Pond,
and the array of tightie whities & tighter buns in serried ranks by the Mens Pond, before exiting at Parliament Hill.
And so to Kalendar to await P & the marauding infants for a well earned lunch.