Summer Trends

Hampstead Ladies' Pond Is the Best Place in the World

Grasping at the chance to be among nature, this summer we can't seem to get enough of the water.
30 July 2018, 12:16pm
A lifeguard on duty at Kenwood Ladies' Pond. Photo: Caroline Cortizo / Alamy Stock Photo

There is something so natural about being in water. Even if it's cold as you get in, once your body adjusts – your shoulders dipped beneath the surface, your feet bumping against each other with nothing beneath them – it's like you belong there, making ripples specific to your shape. Nobody else could make ripples like yours.

Perhaps this is why water makes us think about ourselves: maybe it reminds us of our smallness, which is comforting, but which is also about death. Maybe, at some aching, unknown place inside ourselves, it prompts us to recall a time before we properly existed – when, nestled inside our mothers, we only knew liquid, suspended but safe. In the moment, however, it's usually as simple as the fact that legs which spend most days carrying us around just enjoy the brief sensation of weightlessness.

For the last month or two – a period of time which has felt like the reason the phrase "long, hot summer" exists, and which will be marked forever in our collective memory first by national elation, and then heartbreak, performed like a two-act play in red and white on our streets – we seem to have sought water in our droves. It feels obvious that we would gravitate towards it in the heat: we are, after all, animals. We gather in packs on riverbanks, our bellies heaving up towards the sky. We slip into lakes, ponds and pools, because they offer cooling, cleansing relief for clammy bodies.

If you have a woman's body, however, taking to the water – like simply walking down the street in basically any summer clothes – can have its difficulties. Patriarchy's gnarled hand is always around our necks, but during the summer – when talk of holiday diets and beach bodies seems to dominate so many cultural conversations – it holds on a bit tighter, and even tighter still on those whose bodies are not white, or able, or thin.

At this time of year, most women wearing skirts, and tank tops, and dresses to stem the physical sensation of literally melting can barely leave the house without being catcalled or harassed, and our culture's boring obsession with what we look like can mean that, for some, wearing a swimsuit or bikini can feel less than desirable. This is a shame when you consider that we think of watery spaces as places of rest, and of summer as a time for it. There is, however, one picturesque spot in London which is unique in its ability to offer a special kind of respite to women who might seek it.

Hampstead Heath. Photo by the author.

The Kenwood Ladies' Pond on Hampstead Heath (which, consisting of miles of sprawling green inside England's largest metropolis, has a rich history itself of providing people with a physical space to escape) was originally dug as a reservoir in the 18th century. Since 1926, it has existed solely for the purpose of offering women an exclusive place to swim, like the equivalent Men's Pond also located on the Heath.

While many committed swimmers use the Ladies' Pond year-round, during the summer months you will find it dotted with swimsuits every colour of the rainbow, populated by girls and women laid on their sides, on top of blankets and towels, thumbing through books, eating fruit and crisps, running their fingers through the tufty grass. It's not unusual to hear it described as an idyll – I know this, because I've seen it on social media many times. As a non-London native, I only learned this year about the Ladies' Pond, despite living here for three. This is because, in 2018, the Pond seems to have become extremely popular with millennials.

It's part of a more general trend which has seen young adults flocking towards wild swimming spots across the UK – perhaps because they're beautiful spaces which look especially good on an Instagram feed, but perhaps also because they offer us a degree of timeless, organic romance that these days, particularly in cities, it's hard to find.

Water – especially outdoor, "wild" water – is appealing largely due to its formlessness and possibility, providing us an escape from the structures inside which our lives largely take place. Boxed-in city dwellers go to lakes and beaches to escape smog and Pret a Manger and skyscrapers. Some force at the centre of our bodies – some deep, ancient urge – pulls us towards water. Unlike offices, or poky flats owned by unsympathetic landlords, or even other frameworks like automation or sexism, water is amorphous when there is enough of it, and being in it represents a return to nature, even if just for an afternoon.

Keen Ladies' Pond swimmer Ava, 21, tells me, "It's a place that really brings me back to my body and how I feel in my body – I've had issues with depression and derealisation, and being in the water and around the weeds and trees and stuff makes me feel really present."

It seems obvious to say it, but our lives – and particularly the lives of technology savvy young adults – are utterly dictated by the chaos of digital spaces. In going to wild water, I am prioritising physicality; relocating to a lush expanse where I am able to push pause on my life and be only a body, should I want to. And it is totally unsurprising that I might want to, or that anyone would: the world, as we presently view it, hurtling by on screens and timelines, can be a dreadfully cruel place. The opportunity to be in water furnishes us with another, more direct way to engage with our surroundings – as the novelist Esther Freud put it, describing her experience of the Ladies' Pond (though her words are applicable to most wild swimming areas) back in 2013, "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 splash and scream of someone new braving the cold."

Certainly, the promise of both space and peace, outside of the glare of objectification, is proving extremely popular.

Swimmers in the River Avon, near Bath. Photo: Andrew Lloyd / Alamy Stock Photo

Nicky Mayhew, the co-chair of the Kenwood Ladies' Pond Association, tells me about the current influx of visitors to the pond: "While those of us who swim there year round know it as a place of peace, it is very busy and less peaceful in the middle of the current heatwave when the number of visitors – thousands over the course of each day – mean that people have to queue just to get into the water." She also agrees that there's been an upsurge in interest in the pond, especially among young adults, noting that, "Wild swimming – or swimming in natural water rather than chemically treated pools – has enjoyed a huge surge of interest in recent years. We are seeing more swimmers even in winter. Some of it is fashion, but I think people sharing their positive experiences on social media is probably contributing and motivating younger swimmers in particular."

Another reason for younger swimmers' enjoyment of the pond might be its policy of embracing all women, at least in terms of its public voice. Following a hateful article in the Daily Mail – published to coincide with the Ladies' Pond's traditional, celebratory New Year's Day swim this year – which featured quotes from a small minority of swimmers decrying trans women's use of the pond, the KLPA released a lengthy statement which expressed resolute support for any trans women who wanted to swim there.

"The KLPA is committed to helping to create at the Ladies' Pond an inclusive environment for all women, including transgender women, which is free from discrimination, harassment or victimisation," the statement read. The pond, however, has a way to go until it's a totally inclusive space. Ava notes that, "As a woman of colour I sometimes do feel a little uncomfortable, because it is super white, and I have other friends who avoid it for that reason. It's a shame, though, because it feels like it should be this really amazing oasis for everyone."

Ava, of course, is right: while the Ladies' Pond is open to all, the prominence of white visitors is very noticeable. However, if anywhere is placed to improve, it's the Ladies' Pond. As a space that's appreciated by so many as a haven away from social expectation, its arms can surely only open wider as its appeal – underlined by its accessible £2 admission price – grows. Entirely utopian it might not be quite yet, but in offering women an area that belongs only to us, and where our bodies can be free – of the male gaze, of the containment of daily life – it's made a good start.

In Christianity, baptism wipes away "original sin". The person being baptised is touched by water, its influence a purifying one – to be dunked is to be redeemed, closer to the divine. The popularity of the Ladies' Pond, and of wild swimming as a phenomenon in general, points to a craving held precious inside many of us, especially those who live without regular or nearby access to nature, to experience something which feels both extraordinary and affirming. And how wonderful that in our embrace of wild swimming, so many of us have been able to find it.