The calming joy of wild swimming at Hampstead Ladies’ Pond
“WOMEN ONLY. Men not allowed beyond this point” proclaimed the little gate that lead to the bucolic delights of Kenwood Ladies’ Pond. On a sunny Sunday I flip-flopped my way across Hampstead Heath, searching for an escape from the swamped sweets of London. Walking along the light-dappled path to reach the pond’s cool green waters felt like stepping into an oasis of calm, a surreal pocket of proper countryside hidden in the heart of the capital, edged by lush meadows and inhabited by the city-dwelling mermaids who come here for five minutes of peace. Bathing costume-bedecked ladies having been taking to the water here since the 1860s, and apart from the occasional plane leaving a trail of fluffy cloud in the sky overhead, nothing has really changed. These muddy pools are still a haven for the weary of soul and frazzled of brain, a place where women of all ages can get their kit off judgement-free, lumps, bumps and all.
There’s no gentle way to ease yourself into the pond’s depths – you have to muster up the courage to jump off the platform and into its watery embrace. The first sensation is an icy slap of shock. Then your skin begins to tingle and sing. If you can stand it (and you feel like you have to, because lots of other venerable women in flowered swim caps are gently breaststroking around you like the cold is no big deal), a welcome numbness soon sets in. The longer I swam, the more I felt at home in the water, and my skin started to feel positively warm. When I climbed out again and sat wrapped in my towels under the weeping willows, catching the flash of blue of a disappearing kingfisher, I felt the rare sensation of total calm envelop me. Afterwards, I was so zen-like that even the hot mass of a packed tube on the way home couldn’t pierce my bubble.
We hustling humans have never been more technology-focused than today. The average British adult looks at a screen for an eyeball-aching eight hours, 41 minutes a day – longer than they spend in bed. For many of us, including me, that’s nigh-on inevitable – we need to earn a crumb with computer-based jobs. But we should also try to prioritise those snatches of time spent escaping to the small, analog pleasures of being outdoors. In the wild world beyond your doorstep there’s no wifi and no social media angst – when you’re striding up a hill or cycling down a canal path you are giving your brain time to just be. And for me, wild swimming is the most immersive escape of them all: a dive down into an alien, aquatic world before emerging, refreshed, to do battle with real life once again.
Swim at Hampstead Ladies’ Pond: Kenwood Ladies’ Pond is open to all women and an annual membership costs £5. A single day ticket costs £2. Find more info and seasonal opening times at klpa.co.uk.