Kenwood Ladies’ Pond (Day 355)

Today’s swim is one I’ve been anticipating for months. The Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath is a legendary wild swimming spot. It’s part of a series of ponds in Hampstead Heath, fed by natural springs originating from the River Fleet, that were established as reservoirs to supply water to North London in the late seventeenth century. The mineral-rich water became known for its healing qualities and swimmers took to the ponds in the late eighteenth century. Today there’s a Mixed Pond, which is closed in the winter, a Men’s Pond, and The Ladies’ Pond, which officially opened in 1925. It’s a storied place, much written about and visited by all sorts of interesting people through the decades. A recent edited volume, “At the Pond” brings together a beautiful set of essays; odes to this swimming spot. I’ve been reading them in anticipation of today.

The Ladies’ Pond is often described as “hidden away” or “sequestered” and boy was it ever! Kevin and I entered Hampstead Heath at one end and walked back and forth, snaking our way through muddy lanes and pathways, over hills, and past several ponds that were not the Ladies’ Pond.

It would help if either Kevin or I were the (sensible) type of people who ask for directions, but we are equally stubborn in that department and so we wandered around the park for over an hour, clocking well over 10,000-steps. We finally gave in and looked at GPS on Kevin’s phone, which only seemed to get us more lost. 

Eventually, we found it. Hurray! With gratitude for his patience and perseverance, I said goodbye to Kevin at the gate, past which point it’s Ladies only, and wended my way down a lovely little path toward the pond.

I took a quick picture as I was entering, and it was lucky I did because it turned out that photographs weren’t allowed in the pond area. So this is the only glimpse of the actual pond.

They did let me take a picture of the sign: The water was 3 degrees Celsius (37 degrees Fahrenheit).

I hurried into the lovely wood-paneled changing room and stripped off my clothes before I could think about it too much. I’ve been both excited and anxious about the prospect of swimming in such cold water; watching as my online UK swimming groups report their coldest swims ever, and wondering if I would be capable of withstanding such a drop. 

At the water’s edge, the lifeguard gestured to a pile of bells on top of a stool. “Ring a bell and make a wish,” she said, in a voice tinged with a Ukrainian accent, or something like it, “for the solstice.”

Ah yes. It’s the Winter Solstice today. How lucky for me that I got to celebrate it at such a special spot. When she mentioned the solstice, I noticed that the wooden deck area was decorated with flowers and branches bent into the shapes of hearts. I made my wish and headed to the steps. I ventured in slowly, one step at a time, breathing at each rung of the ladder to check in with how my body felt. 

Fine, was the answer. The biggest shock as I lowered fully into the 3 degree water was how easy it felt. Beautiful, cold perfection. Easier even than recent 10-degree Albany Bulb swims. I can’t explain it. Maybe it was the utter peace of the place; the secluded safety of its. It’s a meandering pond, weedy at its edges, surrounded by trees. The water was dark green, nearly black, fresh, and mineraly.  Ducks and cormorants dipped in and out of the water, swimming gracefully alongside me. I watch as one caught a fish; it squiggled in its beak for a few seconds before the bird managed to get it down its gullet.

For most of my swim, I was alone in the water, being watched like a hawk by the lifeguard. After a while, she asked me if I was getting out soon. I looked at my watch and she said, “Don’t look at your watch. Your watch can’t tell you when it’s time to get out. Only your body can tell you.”

“Well, I feel great,” I said.

“Good,” she replied, “That means it’s time to get out.”

Heeding her wisdom, I climbed back out. All told, I was in for seven or eight minutes and I don’t think I ever felt cold. I didn’t even suffer from an after drop, which I suppose is the benefit of getting out while I was still feeling great. 

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