At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond

Margaret Drabble, Deborah Moggach, Lou Stoppard, Esther Freud et al

Daunt Books, £9.99

Summer in London. One of those muggy afternoons when you can see the air fizzing around you. What could be nicer than to slip into the freezing, silky black waters of Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, then flump on to a towel on the grassy bank? Read a book. Smoke a fag. Look around you with the frank enquiry the space permits.

At the Pond, a collection of 14 musings on the ineluctable charm of this chilly body of water by writers who have splish-splashed there, attempts to nail its allure. The words dark, cold, silken and murky recur in almost every chapter. Silt in the cleavage, ducklings in the reeds: the sensual pleasures of this rare moment of communion with nature in the metropolis are many and various.

“There was something magical about the unplumbed depths, the moorhens, the dragonflies, the waterlilies, the willows, the floating rings and rafts,” writes Margaret Drabble, perhaps the best-known author in the collection, who also acknowledges the “strange mixture of permissiveness and purity”.

But that, of course, is not all. The Pond is also about front, confidence and defying expectations.

“The blood rushes to your organs, and you feel revived,” writes Lou Stoppard, one of 1,348 hardcore winter swimmers whose names are inscribed on the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association’s winter swimming register. “You feel powerful. If you can hurl yourself into a freezing pond, you can likely do anything, you think.”

The Pond’s peculiar fascination is also about female exclusivity. For the Ladies’ Pond, which is swaddled in lush, concealing foliage, is strictly out of bounds for men and boys over fourteen. “Scram,” is its message to the male. Children, radios and dogs are also banned. It is a secret female space that is the antithesis of the ghastly modern spa day. It is not fluffy, pink and pampering, but brutal, adult and slightly dangerous.

“Because there’s something wild and anarchic about the Pond,” writes Deborah Moggach. “It may be managed by the Corporation of London, but it remains a place of wildness and freedom, a beautiful sanctuary, and that’s very precious.”

Opened for bathing in 1925, when there was sometimes candlelit swimming at night, the Ladies’ Pond is also special because it is the best. The ponds on Hampstead Heath, of which there are around 30, were created, perhaps as early as 1692, from the River Fleet, which is now largely underground. There are other bathing ponds – the Men’s Pond and the Mixed Pond – but to say that the Ladies’ Pond is better is like saying that Bollinger Champagne is better than Liebfraumilch. There is simply no comparison.

In the spirit of equality, some of the writers in this collection big up the other bathing ponds. Don’t listen to them. Having swum in all three (the Men’s in the wee small hours), I can tell you that upon entering the caressing chill of the Ladies’ Pond my first thought was always: “The Men’s Pond, pah!”

Back then, it was the 1990s, and the female specialness of the Ladies’ Pond was largely met with acceptance and the odd attempt to peer through the leaves at the semi-naked, topless sunbathing having been permitted since 1976. Today, there are other issues. The afternote explains that transgender women are welcome, but So Mayer, who doesn’t swim at the Pond anymore because “my body wasn’t comfortable with being assigned female”, tells us that transgender protestors recently disrupted a Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association meeting.

“It feels, these days, that even the mallards and moorhens seem to police gender with the beady gaze of their Jesuitical authority.”

This is an uneven volume, with digressions into dendrology (one of the more interesting), the tyranny of smartphones and bitching about the neighbours. However, it does capture the exhilaration of a visit to the Ladies’ Pond, while one of the best essays, by former lifeguard Nell Frizzell, illuminates the Pond’s higher social purpose. “I became able to spot the grief-stricken, the ill, the heartbroken. I would see them transformed, sometimes.”

The remaining question is whether it needed to be written at all. Like the delights of bothies and wild swimming (formerly known as swimming), is to distil it to destroy it? Certainly, more and more women are visiting the Ladies’ Pond, which creates its own problems.

“Being here feels like checking an item off on a bucket list of verified belonging,” writes Sharlene Teo.