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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.

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‘Turning: Lessons from Swimming Berlin’s Lakes’ by Jessica J. Lee ****

I picked up Canadian author Jessica J. Lee’s debut work, Turning: Lessons from Swimming Berlin’s Lakes during a lovely warm summer’s day, and it turned out to be the perfect choice.  Since very much enjoying Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, which is partially a memoir of outdoor swimming, I have been keen to pick up more memoirs along the same theme.  The Times Literary Supplement calls Turning ‘a brilliant debut’, and the New Statesman notes that it is ‘filled with a wonderful melancholy as she swims through lakes laden with dark histories.’

9780349008332Although I chose to read this during the summer, it is seasonally appropriate all year round, as Lee swims ‘through all four seasons.  For her, it is the thrill of a still, turquoise lake, of cracking the ice before submerging, of cool, fresh, spring swimming, of floating under blue skies – of facing past fears of near drowning and of breaking free.’ Turning has been split into four sections which correspond to the seasons, and these are formed by separate chapters, which have lovely emotive titles like ‘under ice’, ‘out of air’, and ‘borderland’.

In this manner, Lee charts an entire year, and over fifty lakes, which she swims in around the city of Berlin.  She moved there as part of her doctoral research, and found such worth in outdoor swimming.  Each of Lee’s chosen lakes has been listed at the beginning of the book, along with a series of illustrated maps which show where they can be found.  Her quest, she explains, has been well planned out; an Excel spreadsheet chronicles a catalogue of lakes, along with instructions of how to get to them, and the best time of year to go.

Lee decided to take up outdoor swimming to try and help with her mental health.  Living in a city on a different continent from most of her friends and all of her family began to take its toll on her, and she reflects: ‘… as I was retreating from the deep end of depression, I surfaced with the bizarre notion that the solution to my problems lay in swimming…  [In Berlin] Hundreds of spots of blue multiplied exponentially as the city lines crept into the surrounding land.  These lakes and rivers – their intricate weave of water laid on to the flat North German Plain by retreating glaciers in the last ice-age – had worked a tiny hook into my heart, and I could do nothing for it but swim.’  She goes on to explain her hopes for her new pursuit: ‘Swimming would be a way of staying with my fears, a way of staying in place.  Above all, I sought to find some balance in it.’

Alongside Lee’s personal experience of swimming is research about ‘how the lake came to be in the landscape, or how its seasonal changes take place’, as well as memories from her past.  At first, these memories all revolve around the water, but she begins to open up about relationships as Turning moves further on.  She discusses the displacement and loneliness which she feels, having moved around a lot, and being far away from her family.  She is continually aware that her time in Berlin is temporary, but this does gently encourage her to make decisions about her future which she feels are for the best.  Swimming gives her a place, a purpose: ‘In the middle of the lake, I’m completely present.  I’m no longer afraid to be alone.  I’ve conditioned myself to the lake, to the cold, to the pain of it.  I can hold it.  I’ve made it mine.’

The prose used at the beginning of the prologue, in which Lee is describing the feeling of being in the water, is sensuous: ‘It slips over me like cool silk.  The intimacy of touch uninhibited, rising around my legs, over my waist, my breasts, up to my collarbone.  When I throw back my head and relax, the lake runs in my ears.  The sound of it is a muffled roar, the vibration of the body amplified by water, every sound felt as if in slow motion.’  In this manner, Lee’s narrative throughout the memoir has such glorious description within it.  She employs this particularly when discovering a new lake, or providing comparisons of swimming in distinct seasons.  She writes: ‘You come ton know the consistent feel of spring and the stagnant warmth at the top of a summer lake.  When the water clears in the autumn, you feel it: the lake feels cleaner on your arms, less like velvet and more like cut glass.  And then winter comes, sharper than ever.  Swimming year-round means greeting the lake’s changes.’  Her descriptions have such a vivacity to them: ‘… I dive off the dock’s edge into the amulet blue, feeling so wholly present in the water that I forget I’m alone, and climb out and ump off again and again until I’m exhausted.’

Alongside her musings on swimming in Berlin, Lee reflects on other lakes which she has swum in.  Of the Ladies’ Pond at Hampstead Heath, for instance, she writes: ‘I began to swim there alone, surrounded by women who seemed stronger than me.  I wanted to be like them: sturdy, no-nonsense, unsentimental.  The pond was opaque and slipped around my body thickly, the water a felted brown.  It was cold and open: a bright circle of relief in the middle of the trees.  I swam out into its centre again and again, out towards the willow and then back towards the dock.  I swam to the lane rope at its farthest edge, watching the cormorants glide through the deep.  The movement was an anaesthetic.’

Part-memoir, part-musing on nature, I cannot recommend Turning enough.  Lee sees each new lake as a gift, which I found wonderful; she never takes her swimming for granted, and even when it does not quite go to plan, there is always a positive that she can find in getting into the water.  Turning is a peaceful and thoughtful read, filled with such beautiful prose.

I found Turning both fascinating and inspirational, and would recommend it to anyone who already loves the outdoors, or wishes to become more outdoorsy.  It has fostered in me the desire to try outdoor swimming for myself; I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to do so in Britain, but I’m hoping to work it into one of my future trips.

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