In October 2018 had an article on my experiences of wild swimming published in issue 5 of the wonderful Creative Countryside magazine. Creative Countryside is devoted to seasonal living and is a lovely way to take a little time, slow down and be more aware of the world around you.
Returning to the water
I have swum in the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath on gloriously sunny summer days for a few years now. In July 2017 I decided to see if I could swim to the end of the summer, to keep turning up and swimming, whatever the weather, just to see how far I could get. In the end, in some ways by accident, I swam for an entire year.
Just like eating the proverbial elephant, I got through the year one bite at a time. July was a breeze, of course it was. But August was hard, surprisingly so. It was a vile month and I struggled to adjust to swimming in unpleasant weather. I found it near impossible to eek any pleasure from those relentlessly miserable days. It was gloomy, dismal and lonely, but I persevered, determined to get to the end of the season.
By the end of September I’d reached my initial goal, spurred on by a mental breakthrough after one particular swim where I realised I needed to view my time in the pond as an adventure, a journey of discovery, rather than as a form of physical exercise. Something switched in me that day and I don’t think it will ever go back. I started to find the whole experience fascinating and I decided to carry on.
October was thrilling as I started to feel the weird and wonderful physical sensations of cold flushes, shivers, teeth chatters and more. My body was behaving in the strangest of ways and it was endlessly interesting. At the end of the month the clocks went back, the water temperature dropped to 12°C and the pond was closed in half for the winter. I had every reason to hang up my bikini at this point but I decided to see if I could reach Christmas.
November was beautiful, utterly beautiful. The rusts and oranges of the falling leaves contrasted vibrantly with the intense blue skies and I adored experiencing every inch of that most atmospheric month. My feet began to hurt and my hands got so stiff I struggled to climb the ladder to exit the pond. I equipped myself with neoprene gloves and neoprene socks and that problem, at least, was solved. I began to swim in a bobble hat, the eccentricity of it pleasingly me greatly.
December was fun but also terrifying. On the day I awoke to find London covered in a perfect blanket of snow I questioned my sanity in going for a swim. But the prospect of swimming in Narnia was too great a pull to resist and so I went. My car skidded on the ice and there was a bus stuck on Highgate West Hill. The steep lane down to the heath was impassable but the pond was defiantly, definitely, resolutely, open. I swam in an ice hole with the snow falling on my face and felt hugely privileged to have been able to experience it. I loved being one of the grinning, giggling women in the changing hut afterwards, the camaraderie binding me to these perfect strangers forever. I don’t think any of us could quite believe we’d done it.
Having got to the end of the year I foolishly thought spring would be just around the corner and that there would be just a few more weeks of hardship to endure before the temperature in the pond began to climb. But the New Year turned out to be my winter of discontent made glorious summer by, well, nothing. January was dreadful and so was February. March was no better, bringing with it more snow and more ice. The novelty of swimming in a winter wonderland had well and truly worn off by then and it was hard to believe the persistent, heavy gloom would ever lift.
April was equally awful and I was resentful towards the pond for what it was putting me through, for its belligerent refusal to embrace the new season and give me even the tiniest glimmer of hope that we would find our way together out of those dark, depressing months.
Finally, in May, the world exploded in joy and happiness was restored. The pond was filled with bobbing ducklings and fluffy goslings and the fair-weather birds returned from their winter holidays. I sailed through a warm and balmy June, enjoying every single minute of the unexpectedly long heatwave. I reached the end of my year and felt a enormous sense of pride and what I had achieved.
Over the course of that year I swam through summer drizzle and winter rain, through ice and snow and carpets of leaves. I swam in water that was 24°C, 1.5°C and everything in between. I swam alongside ducks and geese, moorhens and coots and a very fancy Mandarin Duck. I shared the pond with magnificent grey heron, turquoise kingfishers and the black, prehistoric scales of a cormorant.
I saw the surrounding trees go though every incarnation of colour from the glorious deep greens of May, to the fiery oranges of Autumn and the sombre dark browns of the bare winter branches. I began as a nature tourist, happy to observe the birds and enjoy their company but finished feeling an integral part of nature. The deep connection I forged with the wildfowl at the pond has changed my view of the natural world and my place in it forever.
As far as self-discovery goes, I learned more about myself during those twelve months than in the countless years before. I found out that I have more fortitude than I thought and more mettle than I knew. My self-confidence and self-esteem increased exponentially and the heady cocktail of personal challenge and physiological reactions to cold water have made me feel happier, stronger, calmer and less anxious than I have in a very long time. It’s been the most challenging and remarkable experience of my life.
One Friday, right at the end of my challenge, I arrived at the pond to find it closed. A storm had been gathering over my head and, as my hand reached out to open the gate, the sky flashed with a startling sheet of lightning. A lightning strike is the one form of weather considered treacherous enough to close the pond and so, despite all the elements I’d battled and beaten over the previous year, Mother Nature still had one trick up her sleeve. ‘Not today’, she said.
Oddly it is that swim, the one that didn’t happen, that is the one I feel the most. Nothing I put myself through tried my resilience and tested my acceptance of the weather as much as arriving at the pond that day and not being allowed to slip down the metal ladder into the cool, silky water below. I missed it dreadfully.
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Swimming in the ponds on Hampstead Heath is one of the most magical things to do in London in the summer, but is something few Londoners have actually done.
Last year I decided to keep swimming in the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath through the seasons, whatever the weather. Here is how I got on.