It’s over 30°C and the air is thick with sticky, humid heat. It’s the kind of broiling heatwave that melts you to a puddle on the ground the moment you step out of the shade. It’s too hot to work. Too hot to move. Too hot to concentrate on anything other than a book about serene, shady woods and refreshingly frosty water. Enter At the Pond – a collection of essays on Hampstead Heath’s Ladies’ Pond and the women who have swum there.
Picking up the slim white book, I’m reminded of Richard Loncraine’s 2017 rom-com Finding Your Feet, in which free-spirited Bif (Celia Imrie) introduces her haughty sister Sandra (Imelda Staunton) to the Hampstead Ponds. At various points in the film, the ponds are a source of joy and sadness, of peace and bracing freedom. Surrounded by trees and nature, the ponds are a tranquil sanctuary for these two women – both besieged with their own struggles and woes. It offers them solace and space to clear their minds, to breathe and just be – a sentiment that’s beautifully echoed in the 14 essays that make up At the Pond.
This is first and foremost a collection of writing about the pond itself, from its history to the evolving landscape around it to the swimmers, past and present, who have frequented it. Told exclusively from the perspectives of contemporary writers who’ve swum there, it offers a rare glimpse into a truly unique place through the different seasons. Bookended by winter and autumn, these reminiscences capture the shifting of the seasons; the bitter winters that only the most hardened regulars endure, the warm summers that lure the city’s fair-weather swimmers, and the intermediate seasons that beckon change.
The opening essay, Esther Freud’s Cold Shocks and Mud Beards, reaches into your body and sends icicles through your veins. Along with Lou Stoppard’s Winter Swimming and Jessica J. Lee’s Pond: A Dendrochronology, these writings paint a vivid picture of the ponds during winter. You can feel the biting cold nipping at your toes, the breath-stealing shock of submerging your body in a pond that’s more ice than water.
Yet these writings are less about the temperature (though it remains a pivotal part of their foundations) and more about why the writers choose to swim in winter, as well as the physical and mental benefits of cold-water swimming, and what draws them to the ponds year after year. For many of the winter swimmers it’s the wildness of the environment and the exhilaration. The feeling of being alive. It’s the camaraderie of being a co-conspirator in a society of women brave enough to enter a pond with the power to give you hypothermia.
From winter emerges spring, as Nina Mingya Powles takes readers into the language of water and how swimming evokes different memories from her life around the world. In Ah! to fleet / Never fleets móre So Mayer weaves history, myth, theology and poetry together, exploring the pond’s community in relation to gender and identity, with a final paragraph that resonates long after you move onto the other swimmer’s recollections.
As in life, spring is fleeting, moving swiftly into summer, with essays that reflect on retrospective empowerment, belonging, aging, rebellion, human nature and the act of being present in the moment. A personal highlight is Nell Frizzell’s account of the pond from her yellow lifeguard’s canoe whilst pregnant, a unique perspective that’s both candid and witty.
As summer slips away, Leanne Shapton delves into her experience of autumnal swimming and the memories a smell can evoke, whilst Sophie Mackintosh writes about the season’s wholesomeness and the peace it brings her. It’s a lovely, soothing essay to end with – at once relatable and optimistic, reminding us that whatever else changes in life, the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond is a constant.
More than just a collection of essays, At the Pond is an enlightening and life-affirming book that will make you want to move to London with the sole purpose of becoming a regular Hampstead Heath swimmer. It’s a joy to read – perfect for when you need an escape from the stresses of everyday life.
At the Pond was published by Daunt Books on 20 June 2019