Kenwood Ladies’ Bathing Pond, Hampstead Heath. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CCO 2.0.
It was the full-body ache of our hangovers and the cigarette smoke stagnating in our hair that compelled us toward the pond. We were sat in the debris of a house party, on a sofa that had recently doubled as an ashtray, when Janique said we should go for a swim. I suggested the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, which is free of men and harsh chemicals.
There are five ponds in a row on the eastern edge of Hampstead Heath. They run (from south to north): the Highgate No. 1 Pond, the Highgate Men’s Pond, the Model Boating Pond, the Bird Sanctuary Pond, and, finally, set slightly apart from the others and sheltered by trees, the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond. It is accessed by a long path, behind a gate with a sign that reads WOMEN ONLY / MEN NOT ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT. There are two holding pens off to the side of the path, one for chaining bicycles, the other for chaining dogs. There is no pen for young children, who are not (unlike dogs and bicycles) allowed past even the first gate. As we walked through the park, I regaled my North American companion with the pond’s lore:
The women’s pond is “a transporting haven” with a “wholesomely escapist quality” (Sharlene Teo). To swim in its “clean, glassy,” (Ava Wong Davies) “velvety water” (Esther Freud) is to “enter a new state” (Lou Stoppard)! (All of this comes from the 2019 essay collection At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, in which every piece contains the verb to glide.)
We arrived at the meadow, which, I assured Janique, is a haven of nakedness. On this particular afternoon, as we sat in the sun to change, I noticed that I was the only person who was actually naked.
As we made our way to the water in our swimming costumes (the women are forbidden from swimming nude, or in our underwear), we heard the distinct voice of a veteran lifeguard, shouting to a group, changing on the dock: “GIRLS! GIRLS! Don’t change over there! There’s a pervert who hides in the bushes wanking and we don’t want to give him anything else to juice over!”
I turned to Janique and offered a nervous smile. I had failed to mention the pervert, but she seemed unfazed. On the dock, the girls had wrapped themselves in their towels and were heading sheepishly into the shower block to finish changing. We lowered ourselves into the murky water.
The Ladies’ Pond is meant to be taken in pairs, in breaststroke, at a leisurely pace. This is not true of the Men’s Pond, which seems always to be filled with companionless swimming caps darting about in a splashy front crawl. Our pond is slower, a place to chat and to listen:
“It’s eighteen degrees in the pond today … it was twenty last week.”
“Have you got those special swimming shoes for winter?” “No, not yet.”
“Oh yeah, you just pop one in and shove it over.” “I didn’t think it was that easy.”
“And you know what she was about to fucking do! She was about to leave that beautiful Greek island holiday and fly back to Gatwick, at God knows what hour, to cycle on a FUCKING LIME BIKE to that cunt Simon’s house for a FUCKING HOUSE PARTY and he DOESN’T EVEN FUCKING LIKE HER.” The outraged woman’s companion made various sympathetic mewing sounds. We pushed on.
“Have you ever flown somewhere for a man who doesn’t love you?” Janique asked, once we were out of earshot. “Yep,” I replied.
For a while after that, we swam in silence. Two upturned Band-Aids float past. They were followed by an elderly woman swimming quickly. Her hair was kept dry by a plastic bag from Ryman, the popular chain that sells stationery. The bag was rigid, poking high above the water like a pharaoh’s crown. She had fastened it to her scalp with duct tape.
The girls reemerged as we swam back toward the dock. There were three of them:
“I’ve decided I’m going to get my first ever bikini wax when I go back to uni.”
“Do they wax your ass?”
“That’s not a bikini wax, that’s an ass wax, they’re different.”
“I have such bad body hair.”
“You can’t have bad body hair.”
“Yeah you can, I do. I told my mum and she said, ‘I’ve never had that problem!’ Like, thanks, woman.”
“Well, I’m getting my mustache lasered off.”
“Do you wax your pits?”
One craned her neck to sniff her right armpit. “God, I stink.”
Janique and I added ours to the queue of joggling heads trying to exit the pond—treading water, inching forward, waiting patiently for the woman ahead to disengage completely from the steps before grabbing on to the rope-covered railings. A perfect round bottom whooshed out of the water in front of me. Attached to it was a graying HRT patch, which was just about hanging on.
We padded to the shower block to rinse the algae off of our bodies. Tiny dots of it collect in intricate constellations across your breasts; bikini tops catch the stuff like a net. In the showers, postswim conversation was gentle.
“Ooh, I’ve got a ticket to see that lovely Mark Rylance in a play tonight.”
“Beth, did you pack that thermos full of tea?”
“We were thinking of going away once Ben’s settled into his new school.”
A voice interrupted from outside. “Mary, did I leave my swimming leg in there?” The showering women hushed. Sure enough, there was a prosthetic leg leaning against the wall, underneath the towel hook. “Got it! It’s right here!” Mary grabbed the leg and the chatter resumed.
As we left, the woman at the kiosk called up the path to a group of new arrivals. “ALL RIGHT LADIES, JUST TO WARN YOU, WE’VE GOT MAINTENANCE GOING ON—THERE’LL BE SOME MEN COMING IN. THAT’S RIGHT, THERE’LL BE MEN IN OUR POND.”
Molly Pepper Steemson is a writer, editor and occasional sommelier from London.
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