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‘At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond’ *****

I visited Hampstead Heath for the first time on a blustery wet day in September. Here, I spent a few peaceful moments watching two women with glorious jewel-toned swimming hats gliding along in the Ladies’ Pond. It was cheering that they were undeterred by the weather, particularly as I battled to keep my umbrella up…

At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond collects together fourteen essays, each of which was written especially for this book. I already love the work of some of the contributors – Esther Freud, Margaret Drabble, Jessica J. Lee – but there were a handful whose writing I had not read before. I love thematic collections such as this; they bring together so many different views on one particular topic or location – in this case, a designated pond for women to swim in, in a patch of quiet in the heart of London.

In At the Pond, we are given the perspectives of fourteen different writers, all of whom have swum there. Some of these women are regulars; others have been just once or twice. The book combines ‘personal reminiscence with reflections on the history of the place over the years and through the changing seasons.’

The Pond was established in the late-seventeenth century as a freshwater reservoir, fed by the subterranean River Fleet. It was opened to the public for bathing in 1925, and joins around thirty freshwater ponds dotted across Hampstead Heath, only three of which can be swum in. One of these is solely for men, but there is also a ‘mixed Pond’ which women are able to visit.

‘On a hot day,’ says the book’s blurb, ‘thousands of swimmers from eight to eighty-plus can be found waiting to take a dip before sunbathing in the adjoining meadow. As summer turns to autumn and then winter, the Pond is still visited by a large number of hardy regulars in high-vis hats, many of whom have been swimming here for decades.’

Each of the authors mentions the nature of the place, and the connection which swimming in the pond brings with its surroundings. The pond teems with ‘abundant wildlife – from dragonflies, moorhens and kingfishers above the water’s surface, to swan mussels, roach and carp beneath’. Some of the contributors also touch upon its history, and its rich literary heritage. Rich descriptions pepper each of these essays.

In her essay entitled ‘Cold Shocks and Mud Beards’, Esther Freud writes: ‘No men, children, radios, dogs – the sign on the gate warned, and as I walked down the path beside the sloping meadow, and stood on the wooden deck above the mud brown pond, I had the unusual sense that I was exquisitely lucky to be female.’ She goes on to comment: ‘There is so much space here. So much peace. And above the birdsong the only sound is the hum of chat and laughter and the occasional scream of someone new braving the cold.’

Lou Stoppard writes that ‘the water is silky. It’s thicker than other water. It sticks to the skin, laps your body and holds you, suspended. You cut through it, as if stirring cream.’ Jessica J. Lee – whose memoir on swimming, Turning, is a book which I very much enjoyed – comments: ‘Wet already, I slipped into the black and swam a small lap, my breath catching on the sharp edges of the cold.’ Lee worked on a doctoral dissertation about the Heath, ‘exploring ideas of beauty and history with the Pond’s winter swimmers.’ I can only hope that this is published, and soon!

Nina Mingya Powles’ essay is made up of a series of vignettes, beginning with the swimming she looked forward to as a child, whilst in Malaysia. She notes: ‘I am many bodies of water, strange and shifting’. Margaret Drabble writes about the heritage of the Ladies’ Pond: ‘The lifeguards tell me that the ponds are more valued now than ever, as London entertainments grow ever more expensive, and our need for some contact with the natural world more imperative. They are well protected by those who love them. It is a small miracle that they have survived so well for so long.’

One of my favourite elements of this collection was the way in which it spans every season; indeed, it is split into four sections, which denote each season. Swimming is something which I always love reading about – and doing, although I must admit that I am more of a fair weather woman – and to be able to view the same place in so many different weathers was wonderful. I shivered slightly when a couple of the authors wrote about the lifeguards having to break the surface ice during the winter, and the way in which around 150 hardy women still decide to swim regularly during the season.

At the Pond is a real delight. Almost every one of these essays is overwhelming positive, and each offers recollections of joy and warmth. The authors are united in the sense of community fostered at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, and in the deep sense of peace and wellbeing which they have found within its waters.

The essay collection is beautiful and evocative, and has such a charm about it. At the Pond is rather a moving tribute to a haven which can be found in one of the busiest cities in the world. The collection is lovely to dip in and out of – much like the Pond itself, I imagine.