At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond already occupies a unique place in my internal literary pantheon: it is the first book I have read from cover to cover in one sitting since I was but a child in 2008. I set out to do so, seeking the emotional boost that would no doubt come with the knowledge of accomplishment; roughly halfway through I figured, OK, perhaps I will read the majority now and the rest in the morning, but once I had broken past 100/133 pages I renewed my determination to finish there and then.
For a young man to read a book about a ladies’ swimming pond so voraciously no doubt conjures an especially unsavoury interpretation, but the truth is far more eye-roll-inducing – that some friends and I have recently begun to celebrate all things ‘bougie’ (wryly sipping red wine, reading literary periodicals in the bath, making jam homemade, etc.), of which Hampstead Heath and its iconic swimming ponds unequivocally fall into the category. I actually bought this in the LRB Bookshop and was gifted a free LRB tote bag by the lovely cashier. I’m a walking stereotype.
When you rise up out of the velvety water you feel so powerfully beautiful that it’s possible to forget to look into a mirror for the rest of the day.
Esther Freud, Cold Shocks and Mud Beards
Reading a book in one sitting is an odd experience. The words hit you in their totality; there is no time to ruminate and mellow on their meaning. It’s a little like diving into a wild pond, I suppose. The book is what you would expect – an essay collection comprised of women and non-binary writers, reflecting on their respective relationships with Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, split in seasonal sections. The recollections are mostly loving, some complex; for some writers, the words splash out like an afterthought after a long history of regular pond immersion, and for others, their swims are somewhat more varied for equally varied reasons.
Each essay exemplifies how tightly intertwined a sense of place and personal identity can become. Like I read about in Adventures in Memory, the uniqueness of the human mind is its ability to exist simultaneously in past, present and future, with locations incessantly triggering all sorts of memories all at once. Hampstead Heath itself becomes something of a mind writ in nature, its own past, present and future weaving through essays in velvety water. One reads of older women remembering days long past, like Margaret Drabble’s essay Out of Time, beginning with the affirmation, “I lived in Hampstead, just off South End Green, from 1968 to the mid-1990s, and these were the happiest years of my life.” Elsewhere, younger writers sketch out burgeoning or fleeting encounters; Sharlene Teo’s Echolocation draws the reader through life as an immigrant in London and the accompanying search for identity and place.
I have never lived in convenient proximity to Hampstead Heath. That’s my excuse for why I can count the number of occasions I’ve been to it on both hands. Each time, I skirted the periphery of the Pond, aware of its feted, beatific existence but constantly putting off a swim myself.
There was always somewhere else to be and someone more certain to become. I told myself that one day when I comfortably belonged and didn’t have to worry about the right to remain, I could take the time to discover every unfamiliar part of London with a leisurely complacency.
Eli Goldstone’s Like a Rat was a particular favourite, a quintessentially millennial story of spatial dislocation across high-rent London. Like Drabble, it is a remembrance of her time spent living in Hampstead, beginning at the very beginning.
“I answered an ad on Gumtree for a room in an attic in Hampstead, a self-contained flat in the rafters of a house belonging to an elderly psychologist who seemingly had no idea how much rent she could have been charging … There was a view out over the Heath.”
Goldstone’s life in Hampstead revolves less around the Pond and more everything surrounding it: her work, fluid friendships, dinner parties, “wet dreams of money,” she writes – “I thought of myself as a rich person trapped in a poor person’s body.” It’s a pithy assessment of the modern experience, stretching through the millennials to Generation X to Generation Z, punctuated by discombobulated barometers of wealth. We are rich in elite-preserved cultural capital and impoverished in cash itself.
This sensation cannot help but be married to the Heath, and its ponds, I feel. Hampstead itself is steeped in wealth and rich old houses, and the Heath a chance to retrace the steps of dead Romantics, like my favourite poet’s, John Keats, whose lovely house-slash-museum is located nearby and which I was saddened not to be able to visit this time around. It is a place of wonderful knowledge and resplendence, the ponds representative of nature’s unique capacities to reinvigorate and rejuvenate the soul. Yet it is also made clear that, like all remnants of the Earth, it is characterised almost permanently with precarity. We learn the origin of the ponds themselves (man-made), their long history through London to the present day, nestled away amidst all the hubbub and upheaval. Free to roam, free to take in – not free to swim in, but not apocalyptically expensive, I don’t think.
It’s just a lovely book, with such lovely prose, and expresses in so many different ways the inherently loveliness of Hampstead Heath. But there’s something curiously quaint about these little ponds, too, and the book’s pond in particular; this almost untouched reserve, a sanctuary away from but in the middle of the rest of the world. Comparatively, it’s unimportant: it’s just a pond in London. But I’m not sure anybody could come away from reading the essays within without a deep appreciation for it and all other unimportant spots of nature, because they so exquisitely embody the simple pleasures of human joy beyond our contraptions and creations; always ebbing, always flowing, and one hopes, always there.