KENWOOD LADIES’ POND IS A PLACE OF SOLIDARITY
Kenwood Ladies’ Pond is a pond in Hampstead Heath, just off Millfield Lane. As the name suggests, only women are allowed to swim here. Membership is available for £5 a year. Non-members can also swim by paying a fee. It is marked as Highgate Ponds on most maps.
Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, Highgate Road, London NW5 1QR.
The ladies who swim in the reedy waters of the Kenwood Pond are a fearless lot. By tradition, each 1st January a group of devoted members greets the new year with a freezing plunge into the old clay pits. They share the water with ducks and the bed of tangling things underfoot.
Located on the east side of Hampstead Heath, the pond is concealed from the male gaze by a froth of trees. I find it to be a place of great solidarity. If you forget your costume, you will be offered one of the soggy spares on the changing room peg. It’s a place where women celebrate the strength and resilience of their bodies, without concern for how they look.
In the communal changing hut you will mingle with large Jewish grandmothers, naked from the waist down, and lithe, intimidating 50-year-olds. You will swim with best friends whose weekly catch-ups take place surrounded by ducks. Little rubber-capped heads become tiny as they swim out into the pond that seems bigger than it is, almost edgeless. You wonder if they’ll come back but they always do, steady and careful with their energy.
Here bodies that bear the marks of age, motherhood and inertia take new pride in being useful. Nobody cares, nobody looks. We are all just arms and legs to cut through the water, lungs to power back from the slippery banks. There are no ropes or lanes, so no competition or comparison; it is a place to forget the rules of the century.
Here bodies that bear the marks of age, motherhood and inertia take new pride in being useful.
The fact that the pond is just for “ladies” is both prim and liberating. Old black and white pictures show women with cropped curls and shingle cuts laughing at the water’s edge. This was a space just for them, and it was much more than just “not the men’s bit”. I love the camaraderie of places made just for women – beauty salons, hamams – where you feel softness and quiet power, and know that these places are no longer second best.
You have to be strong to swim in the Ladies’ Pond – children must take a swimming test first and the silty weight of the water is surprisingly difficult to move in. You also have to be patient, willing to trust your blood to warm up and able to suppress your first instinct to jump straight out screaming. On cloudy days it can look hostile, menacingly still and deep. In the summer it is paradise, with swimmers baking dry among the daisies.
A pond is perhaps the least glamorous of all swimming destinations, redolent of toads and sinking stones. It is an especially English kind of water, guarded in back gardens, a space for rain to fall in. It does not have the beauty of lakes or the fun of the sea; the pond is a stoic kind of thing. And when you exit the water at Hampstead you will have a ring of mud around your neck and a sandy darkness between your toes.
But somehow a dip in the pond is all the more cleansing for not being that clean. It gives you a small sense of achievement, reminding you that, undressed, unnamed and unobserved, you can still win private battles.
Photographs by Juhi Pande