Elizabeth Metcalfe on her gravitation to cold water and the allure of Hampstead Ladies' Pond...
When I was a little girl, my parents joked that they couldn't take me on a walk without packing at least one if not two changes of clothes. Perhaps normal for an inquisitive three-year-old, although the particular issue was my gravitation to water. A puddle, a stream, a rock pool, a canal, sometimes the sea, I often ended up dripping and sobbing as my mum emptied water-logged wellies and made all right again with a chocolate biscuit. It was partly a curiosity about what lay below the surface, but also a childish urge to push the limits and see what would happen.
As a teenager, I swam outdoors on-and-off, spending summers on the south-west coast of Cornwall. I was never particularly intrepid, although I did once embark on an annual junior swim in the choppy stretch off Cape Cornwall between the Brisons Rocks and Priest's Cove. I was hopelessly ill-equipped in my pink bikini and foggy goggles, but I made it back to the shore, triumphant and not quite hypothermic. Eight years ago, in my second year of university in London, I found myself craving cold water. Swimming pools, with their fluorescent lights, didn't cut it; I had a hankering for somewhere outdoors with trees and birds where I could aimlessly breaststroke rather than pound lengths.
Like many women, I found myself heading to Hampstead Heath's Ladies' pond, a place that has become something of an institution since it officially opened in 1925 and, for many female Londoners, a rite of passage. It was a muggy June day and it was only a quick ride on the overground from the flat I was living in at the time. Once I'd navigated my way across the Heath, I felt that I'd stumbled upon some sort of arcadia, screened from view unlike the Mixed Ponds and Men's Ponds that I'd passed on my way by dense oak, alder and willow and rich with ducks and dragonflies. It felt pleasantly rebellious to pass through the gates at its entrance: Women Only. Men not allowed beyond this gate' read the sign. This water is deep and cold. Competent swimmers only'. It felt wild exactly the sort of antidote I needed to the man-made city I found myself in. I love the whole unfettered sense of the pond,' says Sheila, who, now in her Sixties, started swimming there almost 17 years ago when she was bringing up her young children. You saunter down the dirt path and go through the open gate into that bucolic place. There is such freedom in just being among women of all shapes, backgrounds and ages.
My first dip, just as I'd hoped, was blissfully restorative. I jumped in from the diving area and after a couple of laps, I felt just that little bit more at peace with myself. Having moved to north London last year, I now count myself as a semi-regular swimmer at the ponds, and still feel a thrill when a dip unburdens me. It has become a sort of addictive, ritualistic reset, where I'll carve out an hour in what seems like an overwhelming week to walk to the ponds and get my fix. I always leave the water fizzing; it's like drinking a strong coffee, but the effects last the length of the day rather than an hour or so.
This feeling is only amplified in the winter. Like Sheila almost two decades ago, I committed to swim through the colder months with a friend last year. In January and February when the temperatures in the pond reached as little as 1 degree our efforts constituted more of a plunge than a swim, as we eased ourselves into the bracing water and breaststroked from the entrance steps to the exit ones, just a mere two metres apart. It's an odd sensation, as if your skin is both burning and numb, but I always try to dunk my head just before I climb out.
Many have observed the seemingly contradictory power of cold water to warm the soul and raise spirits. As writer Lou Stoppard observed in her essay for At The Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies' Pond (2019), water is fantastic for anxiety when you swim in such low temperatures, your brain is lurched out of any spiralling, forced to focus only on the cold.' Roger Deakin, the nature-writer, who is often seen as the father of the modern outdoor swimming movement, expresses a similar feeling in his book Waterlog (1999), which chronicles his swimming journeys across the UK. Somehow or other, natural water transmits its own self-regenerating powers to the swimmer. I can dive in with a long face and what feels like a terminal case of depression and come out a whistling idiot.'
For many of the women that swim there, the Ladies' Pond is a balm, a place where they can paddle through times that feel otherwise impossible. Sheila recounts how on a March afternoon, she witnessed one woman burst into tears in the little changing hut. She was struggling with the pressures of motherhood and the experience of swimming in the pond had somehow unencumbered her. For others, the pond has accompanied them through divorces and mental health struggles. It has the ability to solve problems or rather, provide the space to think through difficulties, encouraging a certain kind of waterborne contemplation. The water has this amazing power to relieve grief and anxiety, says Sheila, who found the Ladies' pond to be a faithful companion through the death of both of her parents. When grievous things happen on a big scale, you depend on the solace that the pond offers, she says.
The pond was forced to close in March due to the pandemic, which, although completely necessary, felt particularly cruel at this time. After those freezing winter swims, I for one felt robbed of my reward. But I also and I'm sure I echo many women's feelings felt deprived of this precious place where I could decompress and contemplate strange times. A friend of mine, who regularly swims at the pond, had been plotting where she'd like to swim since the pond closed and when she finally made it to the Cornish sea last week, she sobbed in relief. The pond has now reopened with a booking system and the fact that each hour-long session sells out within a few minutes, is testament to how valued a resource this is, especially in tough times.
As much as swimming can be a solitary pursuit, there is also a wonderful sociability at the Ladies' pond. This is particularly felt early in the morning when the long-timers, a strong band of mainly older women some of whom have been swimming for over 40 years visit the pond. There is a great sense of camaraderie, whether it be the comforting nod of the lifeguard or the gentle chatter of women in the little changing hut as they peel off their wet swimsuits and patiently wait for one of the two hot showers. One particularly cold morning, I found it almost impossible to climb down the pond's steps until I was egged on by a lady. When you get to my age, you'll realise it's the perfect tonic for hot flushes, she joked, floating elegantly across the pond in a starfish shape. Some of the women who swim here are in their Eighties and I just hope that in fifty years time, I'll be one of them.
Words by Elizabeth Metcalfe. Elizabeth is Deputy Features Editor at House & Garden.
Photographs by Ruth Corney. Ruth Corney's new book, Kenwood Ladies' Pond, is a 20-year documentation of the light, life and atmosphere at the Hampstead swimming ponds. All proceeds go to The Alexandra Wylie Tower Foundation.