A tale of fire & ice: My year of swimming in a cold pond
I have swum in the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath on gloriously sunny summer days for a few years now. I have always been envious of the older women, many in their seventies and eighties, who swim all year round. Last July I realised that, as awe-inspiring as they indisputably are, they aren’t actually any different to me. They aren’t younger or fitter and they have no special powers. They had simply just decided one day to do it. So I decided to do it too. To just keep swimming. To keep turning up and climbing down that cold, metal ladder into the chilly water and see how far through the year I could get. Here is my story.
July starts wonderfully well. I swim fifteen times. The weather is a stuffy and humid 30° which makes the 21° water inviting and refreshing. It’s very busy, of course. The long summer days mean the pond stays open until 8.30pm and it’s easy to find the time to go. Now that I am not just there to ‘have a swim’ I become more aware of the quality of the water, the subtle changes in the temperature of the pond through the different layers of the water and the position of the sun.
By the end of the month the temperature has dipped to 21° and suddenly I have the pond to myself. Before, I would not have swum on a cool day like this and my teeth start chattering and I become breathless for the first time. Looking back now, a year later, I can see that I was staying in the water for too long (I was swimming four laps whereas now I rarely do more than two).
One day I am swimming towards the top of the pond when a mighty grey heron appears from the clouds and careers towards me like a jumbo jet coming in to land. He circles the pond sweeping the ducks off their buoys into the water before he settles. It is perfectly clear who is in charge of the pond today. It’s not me.
August brings with it severe apathy. I am already bored of the repetitive nature of swimming. The water stabilises at 18° and it barely stops raining for the entire month. It’s miserable and I only swim six times. This might be the shortest challenge I’ve ever taken on.
My lower back hurts almost constantly from not putting my face in the water (I don’t want to get my hair wet). My physio prescribes goggles and sidestroke. I do my research and order some Roki goggles from America and I buy a swimming cap. With my newly acquired underwater vision I am surprised and strangely comforted to discover that there is literally nothing in the water. No reeds, no fish and no visible bottom. Just my ghostlike hand in the brown, silty water in front of me. I learn that raindrops go upwards when they hit the water and that baby moorhen have very long legs.
The heron returns. But this time he is chased off by coots and goes to sit at the top of a tree. Even from that distance he is magnificent. I am thrilled to see the flash of turquoise from two kingfishers racing across the surface of the water. Now that days are shortening the pond closes at 6.30pm.
In September I have a breakthrough. It dawns on me that I need to view pond swimming as a life experience rather than as a form of exercise. If I can approach my swims as little voyages of discovery rather than a repetitive fitness regime I might just be able to persevere. From then on it all becomes a whole lot easier to persuade myself to go.
By the end of the month the water temperature is 14° and I am starting to feel chilly. But I am also starting to enjoy it. The sun is shining and I feel weirdly cosy and warm in the water. It is the first time I feel the deliciously odd sensation that I am slipping down between warm, freshly ironed sheets at the end of a physically exhausting day, rather than into a cold body of water. It is intoxicating and I begin to get hooked. By now my skin is burning and I am experiencing cold flashes ten minutes after each swim as my body begins to return to normal. They course through my body like power surges and make me feel more alive than anything I’ve ever known and at this point the fabled endorphins kick in.
The sign at the pond declares it is time for us to shorten our swims and I reach my first goal of swimming to the end of September. The pond closes at 4.30pm. Once the temperature drops to 12° half the pond is closed off for the winter and, as there are only two more degrees to to go, I think I may as well carry on.
On the way to the pond I pass a woman wearing a woolly hat and clutching a hot water bottle to her chest. She has a Mona Lisa smile on her face and we exchange the knowing look of shared experience.
I swim through a carpet of fallen leaves which is both magical and beautiful. I practice entering the pond elegantly and nonchalantly like the old timers do. But I just can’t help spitting out ‘fuck fuck fuckity fuck’ under my breath as my body leaves the comfort of the ladder. My body is doing the weirdest things and it’s fascinating to experience how little we know about what our bodies can really do.
I swim after a really stressful morning and I realise for the first time quite how much it instantly changes my mood. I begin to understand the power of baptism, entering the water black and angry and emerging full of lightness and serenity. I find out that taking off your bikini after a really cold swim is surprisingly painful and I move to the indoor changing room because it is drizzling and I don’t want my clothes to get wet.
It's around this time that I start to make my peace with the cold. It may surprise you to read that I actually loathe being cold, it's a fear that invades almost every day of my life. I belligerently cling to woolly jumpers in the summer and am always the person in the seat closest to the fire in the winter. At the pond I stop seeing the cold as a foe to be confronted and instead accept it as a neutral presence. As the water cools it's as if I can only judge the temperature by the effect it has on my body rather than how it feels against my skin.
The water is cooling slowly, reaching 11° by the end of the month. The pond now closes at 2.15pm and half of it has been roped off for the winter. Many swimmers stop at this point but it’s only a few weeks until Christmas so perhaps I’ll just see if I can get there.
Seemingly overnight the water temperature plummets to 7° and I involuntarily shorten my swims from twenty five minutes to just six. I just can’t stay in the water for any longer. For the first time I find out what it really means to have your breath taken away.
But it is beautiful, so very beautiful. After a gloomy start the month ends with bright blue skies and the delicious smell of earthy paths, silty water and mulchy leaves. I feel a profound sense of connection to my surroundings and I begin to feel part of nature and not just a human tourist.
My feet start to hurt violently when I swim as if they have been caned. Soon my hands become so stiff I fear I won’t be able to pull myself up the ladder and out of the water. I buy neoprene gloves and socks and the fear and pain dissipates. It’s now 5.5° and my productivity falls through the floor. I spend my afternoons sitting in front of my gas fire with a hot chocolate in one hand and a magazine in the other, feeling more relaxed than I have in a very, very long time. I start swimming in a bobble hat which is surprisingly effective and pleasingly eccentric. I have stopped swimming sidestroke because the ingress of almost-freezing water into my ear canal hurts.
I finally find out why there are so many washing up bowls in the changing rooms. Aping the other women, I stand in a bowl of hot water while getting changed, which is the only way of ensuring my feet can operate the pedals of my car on the way home. A woman gives me her bowl for me to plunge my frozen hands into. I express my pleasure at the hot water and she tells me I must be very chilly as the water she has given me is almost cold.
I awake to find London covered in a perfect blanket of snow. My husband looks at me incredulously and says ‘obviously you’re not going today’ but he says it half-heartedly as he knows me better than that and I think he secretly wants me to do it. The chance to swim in Narnia is too great a pull to ignore. It is magical and thrilling and there is a buzz in the changing room and everyone is giggling. I am absolutely terrified but I feel the most enormous sense of achievement when I am done. The water is 1.5°, by far the coldest I've swum in.
I start to notice that all the swimmers have strange little routines that help them muster the courage to enter the water. Some undress in a mindful and mechanical way, some place their shoes under the bench in a particular formation. Some women shower before a swim and some prefer to change outdoors in solitude. One woman I see sweeping the floor of the changing room and only when she had swept all the water into the drain was she mentally ready to get undressed.
A bus is stuck on Highgate Hill and I nearly crash my car on the way home as it slides out of a junction into the middle of the road on the ice. Twice. But I arrive home safely and I don’t move from the fireside for the rest of the day.
I make it to Christmas. But surely now I’ve done the hard part and the warm rewards of spring are tantalisingly just round the corner… aren’t they?
January is hard, so very hard. But it always is isn’t it? After the colours of Autumn and the joys of Christmas, January seems to have nothing to recommend it.
My motivation is very low. The weather is cold and gloomy and I am sluggish and just want to be warm. It takes me a week to summon up the courage for each swim and I stop logging them on my watch. I learn that the only way to get myself to the pond is to put my bikini on as I get out of bed in the morning as the thought of removing my clothes later to get changed is abhorrent.
January is just about keeping going, as spring will come, as it has every year forever. I still feel brilliant after a swim but I definitely have the hump with the pond. I think we need to have it out somehow and move on.
February is a filthy month. But it is also my birthday month and so I mind it less than most people. My motivation is still at rock bottom and I am still not logging my swims. I think perhaps I swim four times in the whole month. The water is a fairly stable 5° and has changed little in weeks. Everything feels at a standstill. I swim through slushy ice, pushing it aside with my hands as I go. It’s unpleasant, not like the picture perfect snowscape of December.
I follow an old woman in a motorised wheelchair down the path. She is lowered into the freezing cold pond by the lifeguards using the hoist. I overhear a conversation in the changing room where a different woman tells her companion that she has only once turned up and not swum. It was in the early 1970s and the holes in the ice were freezing over as soon as they were cut. I find it incredible that some of the women here have been swimming regularly for longer than I’ve been alive. It must surely be the secret to a long life.
Spring arrives. Except it doesn’t. In its place is snow, more snow and a whole lot of ice. The swimmable area is tiny, just a hole in the ice. It's amazing how swimming in such cold water strips you of any shyness when getting changed. The desperation to get out of your swimming costume and into your warm clothes renders coyly changing behind a towel trivial and ridiculous.
I turn up one Sunday to find the pond is closed. The deck is iced over and dangerous so we swim at the Men’s Pond instead. It’s a bit Soviet there and unrelentingly concrete. I change outside in the drizzle and do not enjoy myself. But the men are chivalrous and welcoming and there is an excited buzz and we share the Blitz spirit of stoicism, determination and generosity.
There is still no sign of spring. The gloom is still heavy but it is warming up a little - the water is now a balmy 8°. The pond is fully open again and we can swim until 4.30pm. I am swimming more often now and although I am still in my boots and gloves I am considering dispensing with my bobble hat.
The wildfowl begin to return. A few hardy ducks, coots and moorhen stayed with me in solidarity during the winter and now their fair-weathered friends are back. A tiny duckling bumps up against my nose and it's one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I encounter an enormous prehistoric black bird with batman-esque scales on his back and when I look him up in my book at home I find he is a cormorant. The ducks and geese hang out by the lifeguards’ hut and I suspect they are getting tidbits. One day a very dapper chap and his partner arrive and I have no idea what he is. I go home and google ‘fancy duck’ and his face pops up immediately. He is a Mandarin Duck.
I take great pleasure in this co-existence with animals. We are content to be in each other’s company, trusting each other and not feeling threatened. I don’t feel the need to touch the birds, or own them, or make them my charges, I am just so very happy to be sharing their pond with them.
Finally Spring is here. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to it so much or enjoyed it so deeply. At the pond the ice is gone, as is the mud and the filth. The gloom has lifted and the pond has exploded into life. There are goslings and ducklings, dragonfly and kingfisher. Lilypads line the edges of the pond and bulrush provides a thick border. I throw off my gloves and socks and I start taking hot showers after a swim (I don’t do this in the winter because I fear I will never be able to leave the warmth of the shower to get dressed and it can be dangerous to warm up too quickly after a very cold swim).
May is what kept me going through the harshness of winter and so it is a great surprise to me to find I only swim a few times this month. I could blame this on work, on travel, on being put off by the summer swimmers who have started to return, and really just on life. But the truth is more simple. The rising temperature means I no longer have to pin swimming to the front of my mind in order to retain my fortitude. Because now, I can just ‘go for a swim’ and that is, oddly, less alluring.
But then, on the last day of May, I walk down the shady lane and breathe in the familiar earthy, silty smell I’ve learned to love. It hits my nostrils and I feel the peculiar, heady, intoxicating mix of trepidation and serenity rise up in my body like a wave. A feeling I experience nowhere else in the world and my love for the pond is reignited in a heartbeat.
The water is empty, the summer swimmers uninterested when the pond is not beautiful and shimmering. As I sink into the cool water it feels like coming home after a long, tiring journey. As I swim I can feel the creases in my brow soften and the left side of my mouth begin to curl upwards involuntarily. It felt as if I’ve shed all the encumbrances of life and am just, plain and simply, me.
I begin to fear reaching July. I’m scared my interest will wane once the challenge is complete, as that is my way. I want to nurture this addiction as it has been the single most profoundly positive thing I’ve done for my mental health in my entire life. And I don’t ever want it to end.
The weather in June is glorious and I swim almost every day. The pond reaches the dizzy heights of 24° and there is no longer a shock as I enter the water. The pond is open until 8.30pm, six hours longer than in December.
I sail through to the end of the month and complete a challenge I never set out to do. I just wanted to swim to the end of the summer but I swam for an entire year. I have swum around 85 times through all weathers. Through snow and ice and carpets of leaves. Through wind and rain and the heatwave of June. I’ve swum in water that was 24° and 1.5° and everything in between. I’ve swam mostly in the Ladies’ Pond, occasionally in the Mixed Pond and once in the Men’s Pond. I’ve swam with ducks and geese, heron and cormorant, kingfisher, dragonfly, coots and moorhen. And an expiring carp.
It started as physical exercise and ended as a voyage into self-care. I’ve felt happier, calmer, less anxious and more connected to nature than I have since I was a child. It's improved my self-esteem and given me a glimpse of what I'm really capable of. I have more mettle than I knew and greater fortitude than I thought.
I’m hoping more than anything it becomes a lifelong pursuit, a habit that is here to stay. I don’t ever want to live far from the pond and, as far as challenges go, I’m now wondering, what’s next?
Thank you so much for reading, and thank you to Richard, Arthur, Evan, April, Jenna, Sasha, Holly, Amelia and Sue who have all swum with me at some point in the last year.
If you fancy giving open water swimming a go, start swimming in the summer, get checked over by your doctor (I did), learn how to warm up safely and read up on the dangers and what to expect, especially around 'after-drop', cold incapacitation and sudden immersion syndrome. The Outdoor Swimming Society has many helpful guides.