Saturday, 27 November 2021

At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies' Pool (Daunt Books, 2019)

Photo from 


I found this small volume of 14 essays utterly intriguing. 
Hampstead Heath in London contains three swimming ponds (and others for angling, model-boating etc; created when the Fleet River was damned in the 17th and 18th centuries as reservoirs for water supply to Hampstead and Highgate). The swimming ponds are one for women, one for men and one mixed. 
The writers who contributed include some well-knon, Like Margaret Drabble and Esther Freud, some not so well-known. It is divided into 4 sections, Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn. Some swim year-round, some are summer-only. 
The Pond as it is known is legendary amongst certain Londoners. It is "wild swimming" in a huge city ... many describe the wildlife and the vegetation...moorhens, ducks, snakes, reeds and grasses etc. The temperature is never what I would call warm, and in winter there can be ice, and of course snow on the ground. There seems to be several hundred hearty souls who do swim year round. However, there also seems to be a sort of reverence, an elitist aura around them. One writer says "they know the lifeguards". 
Also intriguing are some of the "rules" and customs ... eg there can only be a certain ratio of swimmers to lifeguards, so on a hot summer's day you may have to wait to drop in down the metal railing. Imagine trying to impose that at one of Sydney's (un-lifeguarded) ocean pools!) 
Hampstead and Highgate are high-end London suburbs, nowadays often populated by the very wealthy, though they weren't always - they were arty and bohemian in the past. 
I couldn't help comparing the Pond's mores with those at Sydney's McIvers Baths - the Ladies' Pool at Coogee. Some seem similar - the older coterie of "gatekeepers", sticking within your own groups, the basic changerooms, topless sunbaking, but the convivility in the water, and the style of swimming seems a little more open at McIvers. As well, apart from a couple of essayists with southeast Asian heritage, there is know mention of it as a refuge for diverse cultural groups like Muslim women or nuns or others who want to swim in a women-only environment. 
There was a major controversy a couple of years ago, when the London Corporation, which manages the Pond said it was ok for transitioning or transitioned male to female Transgender users to officially use the pool (they had been anyway), with backlash from some. That seems to have settled down now. 
It probably helps to be a swimmer to enjoy the book, but I think it's also interesting in broader cultural terms as a slice of London life.

Here's the page of the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association, a voluntary group of women which cares about the Pond. There's new and info about current campaigns. There is a video called "City Swimmers" in the Gallery.

A story about closure due to sewerage leaks, and a protest against compulsory charges.

Here's some reviews of the book: 

By Natalie Xenos - click here.

By Rebecca Armstrong - click here.

You can easily search for more online. 

No comments: