Monday, 4 July 2011

Keeping my mouth shut

Off Millfield Lane, Hampstead Heath
London NW5 1QR
0207 485 4491
Advice: Leave your ill-mannered loutish self behind, in South London, where it belongs. Also, men.

I’m in London, but I’m not.  I’m on Hampstead Heath, home of mixed, men’s and women’s swimming ponds, though today I’m just visiting the women’s pond. Ladies. Women’s. Oh, whatever…  my gorgeous swimming companions are playwright Tanika Gupta and writer Caitlin Davies, who has researched the ponds for a book, Taking the Waters, A swim round Hampstead Heath, and is therefore an expert. They are glorious, funny, warm and successful, and I’m a lucky woman to have their company. Lucky lady. Woman. Whatever...

Wandering across the heath on my way to meet them, I asked for directions from an older woman - she had the familiar look of ‘batty swimmer’, one I’m hurtling towards at great speed, so I guessed, rightly, that she’d know where the pond was. We meandered across together, chatting about her 51 years of swimming here -  only when the water was over 64 degrees, mind. Lightweight. A tasteful sign marks the entrance at the start of a shaded country path; there’s a ticket machine that probably started life in a car park,  it suggested I put my ticket on my dashboard. The only dashboard I have is my boob area, but I didn’t feel it was appropriate to start making tit jokes, so I stuck the ticket in my pocket, and we headed down the narrow over-hung gravel path, a swathe through the trees, wild flowers  bobbing across, tickling our shins. My guide told me how the pond had flooded back in 1975, and how it was nearest the spring, so the cleanest to swim in. After a couple of minutes, there’s a gap in the trees;  to my left was a landing area and the pond, to my right a grassy bank with benches, overlooking another pond below. It’s a breath in, an ‘oh’ of appreciation, and a step back in time - how can a pond be anything but timeless? I cross my fingers for my guide’s sake - fortunately the blackboard said the water was 68, so in she went.

There are a couple of women in the water, genteel head-up swimmers, doing a calm breaststroke that barely ruffles the surface. I chat briefly to the lifeguard, who tells me that people do do serious swimming here, there was somebody in at the weekend who swam for five hours -  training for the Channel, we surmise. It doesn’t look that kind of place, and news on the website suggests there’s obviously had to be some (ahem) polite accommodation between competitive wetsuited swimmers and the leisure bather. Same everywhere. Tanika, Caitlin and I change in a small open courtyard area, I feel a bit fraudulent in my swim hat and goggles, I’m setting expectations too high, but they’re habit.  We stand overlooking the water. It’s beautiful, a deep green with white life buoys marking a rough line; protected from view by lush trees, rushes and willows; green heath visible beyond. Caitlin tells us how in the 1920s, the pond was more open, and men and boys would gather on one bank to watch as women in modest knitted costumes plunged in to the cold water.  The men laughed and taunted, we imagine, and we laugh, at the courage and gaiety of our sisters, tolerating both the men and the smelly itch of sagging wet wool. Caitlin tells us, too, how she used to clamber in and break the ice as a teenager, and we shiver. She warns us that the moorhens bite. We start to get in, and yea, OK, Caitlin and Tanika may be bright and beautiful and successful (see above) but who is the quickest to get in? Yeah. Me. HA. I strike out to the furthest reach of the pond, my limbs a weak-tea yellow in the light filtered through the melted silk of the textured water, visibility nil. Every time I sight, I can see a flurry of midge activity across the surface of the water, like it crackles. I hold the furthest white buoy and look back to the landing deck - I  can just spot Tanika floating on her back, enjoying the peace of the moment, her head, breasts, knees and toes breaking the surface. 

After a few lazy laps up and down, we engage with the water, find hot and cold spots, dodge vicious moorhens.  We get out and sit on a bench in our towels, talking. It’s very peaceful; Caitlin tells us that loudness is really not encouraged and yes, there are signs proclaiming the ‘peace and tranquillity’ aspect, rather than the ‘cackling mad laughter’ aspect. The lifeguard comes round, warning us that a man is coming through to test the water. In other circumstances, with other people, that might induce a shrieking ‘oooh! A man!’ We look at each other and laugh like sour old cows. Poor sod.

Is this a review of a London pool? Yes, it is, but a pool like no other. This isn’t about facilities, or cleanliness (it was) or lanes or …all the shaving and showers business. This is about … having a good day. Giving yourself a bit of time. Relaxing in water. Laughing (QUIETLY) with other women. Finding if there's a bit of you that’s not a frowning stressed harridan. For that, it’s unparalleled, and recommended. And maybe if you want to slog up and down in a wetsuit, you’d be better off finding somewhere more in tune with that mentality.

On the way back across the heath, we passed a huge group of Bengali families, having picnics, kids running past flying kites. ‘This feels odd’ Tanika said. ‘They’re all speaking Punjabi, I can understand them. It’s like being Doctor Doolittle’.

* Since writing this, I was shown this blog on access to the pond. It's better than you might think - in that there is some, albeit completely unadvertised, natch, because (irony alert) who would want to make things easy? Getting TO the pond remains problematic. But do read the blog for full info; it's put far better than I could have done. 

*If you’re a man, and want to add a review of the men’s bathing pond, why not contact me either here in Comments or via Twitter @jennylandreth. And if you’re mixed, and want to review the mixed pond, that too. I’m all about equality of opportunity.


  1. Agreed, a beautiful and peaceful place to swim (although it can get a wee bit giddy on hot summer days). The best thing about this pool in comparison to the mixed pool is that you can strip off to shower afterwards. When the algae is at its peak, this is crucial. After having struggled (and ultimately failed) to rinse all the green slime out of my crevices while still clad in my cossie in the open-air showers at the mixed pool and also at the Serpentine, I didn't go back to them. Nice idea to shower next to the pool but totally impractical.

  2. Perfect, I feel like I've just had a swim there. At peace, calm ... Aaaaahhhhhh

  3. A quick comment about the Mens' Pond! I went there in 2004 or 5, predominately to enjoy the nude sunbathing facilities! It was quite surreal but uplifting to swim in a natural pond even though a costume was the dress code due the possibility of a female lifeguard apparently, ot that anyone sees much in the water!
    as for the sunbathing the luxurious concrete floor could do with softening up, but still tempted to go again though I'm not much of a swimmer. but yes the ability to shower cossie free to get the algae off and clean properly is wonderful.
    Ric blondie64

  4. Thanks Ric blondie64, appreciate the input!

  5. :) the "!" makes me wonder in what way you appreciate my comments? I hope you didn't really mind me commenting the way I did?
    Locally we lost an open air pool several years ago which was situated next to some lakes and I wonder why the council can't make space for a swimming area (mixed) in these lakes, though they do have a blue algae problem that they would need to resolve more regularly!

    Ric blondie64 @richsulley

  6. God, no, sorry, injudicious use of the ! I did appreciate your comment, would like this blog to be much more interactive than it is currently.
    Where was the pool near you that got lost? (You say lost, do you mean shut?) I have commented before that you could do a Pessimists Tour of London, where lidos used to be. Ever feel tempted just to jump in the lakes anyway, even if it's not 'official'? Call it 'wild swimming'...

  7. It was in Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire next to the A1(m) lovely complex with sandpits and several pools as well as a good swimming pool with diving boards, but we got told there was subsidence by the council.
    Its all been filled in now and the truth was the hadn't done regular maintenance and everything needed changing at once so too expensive to be done!
    But its next to boating & fishing lakes with parkland around it, so could easily secton some off for swimming like Hampstead Heath!
    Ric blondie64 @richsulley

  8. Just followed your link from twitter, sad to see the comment above, as I learned to swim in that pool! Moved away years ago, so I hadn't heard it had closed.