At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond

OSS Book Editor: A small but wonderful collection of essays that shares the joy of the Ladies' Pond

The ponds on Hampsted Heath contain a mythical quality. This is London, and yet you feel worlds away, hidden from the hustle of the city, enveloped in a cloak of greenery and quiet. The Ladies’ Pond is a particularly special place, close to my heart, and it turns out, the hearts of many others.

At The Pond is a new collection of essays from different writers, on their experiences at the Ladies’ Pond. The book divides the essays by season, starting in winter, and takes you on a journey of swimming in the Pond through the year with writing that is poetic, brave, funny, and sometimes heart-wrenching. I still aspire to be an all-weather swimmer and last week I met one of those winter brave hearts in the changing room of the Pond. Us ‘fairweather’ swimmers were commenting on how the water was warmer than anticipated, a cool 18 degrees. The winter swimmer smiled and said she swam all through the year, a look of pride and self-confidence appearing on her face.

At the Pond reminded me of what I first thought when I visited the Ladies' Pond on the Heath, that nymphs swim here.

Lou Stoppard explains that 12 degrees signals the start of the winter season at the Ladies’ Pond. The rope is drawn in, restricting how far you can swim, and then later, ice forms, sometimes forcing a swim in one of the other Ponds. Eventually, as the water temperature hits zero, you lower yourself down the ladder and speed across to the second ladder to get out again – “more a dip than a swim”, Stoppard writes, in the dead of winter. 

“Brittle as a film of crystals on boiled sugar, the sheet of ice that had encased the Pond wilted with the winter rain…” Jessica J. Lee writes lyrically, paying attention to the surrounding natural world in her essay. Lee swam in the Pond while doing PhD research on the Heath and her essay is filled with imagery of the Heath in winter – bare-boned trees, dripping rain, inches of bark, leaf mulch. It is transportive. Stoppard, Lee and others draw the readers attention to the camaraderie of the Pond, of the respect garnered from the lifeguards, from the older women, when you make it through a winter season. 

But these essays are about more than just swimming, more than the Pond. In some, like Echolocation by Sharlene Teo, writing about swimming is a way of figuring out belonging, and what that means. Teo writes starkly on how swimming in the Pond “feels like checking an item off on a bucket list of verified belonging, one step closer to integrating into this vaunted capital that I’ve felt contentedly isolated in for nine years”. Teo explores how the choice to remain somewhere that is not the country of your birth or nationality is an existential pursuit. “What does the right to remain signify but the desire to keep being the person you are still in the process of becoming, in the conditions you find most conducive to your development?” 

At the Pond is a series of essays about a body of water but these essays are about so much more than that.

Amy Key’s essay made me laugh out loud with recognition, but it was filled with the poignancy of living, of reaching a new decade and still being unsure of things. Key writes of the way the Pond is a safe space, of “being protected by the gathering” of women, as does Deborah Moggach who writes of the shared nature of the Pond, “a place of wildness and freedom”, and Sophie Mackintosh explains, “all around you are bodies packed into the available space but never as intrusively as at the Mixed Pond…” Women have learnt to share space, and the Pond is just that, a secret shared among many.

At the Pond reminded me of what I first thought when I visited the Ladies’ Pond on the Heath, that nymphs swim here. What better book to put in your bag than this small collection of essays, fierce with love for the water, and the Ladies’ Pond? It is compact enough to whip out on the tube, or read while you queue. Easy to pack into a bag as you head out the door, into the world, companions hidden within its pages. 

Lexi Earl