I hadn’t been living in London for more than a few months when, in the summer of 1979, I discovered the Ladies’ Pond. I’d grown up in the country and although through my teenage years I’d longed to get to the city – nightclubs, Piccadilly Circus, the smoking carriages on the Tube – once I was there I soon found I was missing the things I’d most despised – quiet, long walks, sky.
The existence of Hampstead Heath was miraculous enough to me. I had no idea London could accommodate such a tract of nature – the trees, hills and wild flowers so much more luxurious than the neat fields and golf courses of East Sussex. And then to discover, hidden down a leafy lane behind a scrub of saplings, a secluded lake for the use of ladies only.
No men, children, radios or dogs the sign on the gate warned, and although this list included many of my favourite things, I had the unusual sense, as I stepped down the path beside the sloping meadow and stood on the wooden deck above the mud-brown pond, that I was exquisitely lucky to be female.
There are numerous ponds on Hampstead Heath, as many as 30, although only three are reserved for swimming – a mixed, a men’s and the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond. This was officially opened in 1925, although people had been using it for centuries. There used to be night-swimming by candlelight, and apparently Katharine Hepburn once visited and brought a tin of biscuits for the female lifeguards to have with their tea. Today there is a group of regulars who come every day, through rain, thunderstorms and ice, and dip themselves into the water. There are long winter months when it is only them. And then, on other, hotter holidays, there are as many as 2,000 women swimming, chatting, sunbathing on the meadow.
And the meadow is as important as the pond itself – because the Ladies’ Pond is not just about swimming. It is also about taking your place among your own sex – every shape and size, all classes, all ages from eight to 90, from across London, across the country. Even from abroad. The meadow is entirely private – topless sunbathing has been allowed since 1976, and once you lie back on your towel all you can see are trees and sky. There is so much space here. So much peace. And above the birdsong the only sound is the hum of chat and laughter and the occasional splash and scream of someone new braving the cold. You can lie in this meadow until dusk, because you’ve paid your dues. You’ve already immersed yourself in the deep, dark lake. And today, at least, you don’t have to go in again.
To swim in the Ladies’ Pond is like being part of an exclusive club. There is a special bond between the swimmers – they smile at each other as they glide by and introduce their daughters to the lifeguards as they come of age. Girls have to be eight, and when they first arrive they are watched over as they take their first strokes. Each time I walk down the shaded path I think of the friends I’ve swum with over 30 years and wonder if they might be here. Sometimes they are. We laugh and congratulate ourselves and remind each other to wipe the mud off our chins. And you need to be reminded, because when you rise up out of the velvety water you feel so exhilarated and beautiful that it’s possible you won’t think to look into a mirror for the rest of the day. And all the while, clinging to your face is a dark brown grizzly beard.
It’s well known that swimming in cold water has physical benefits but there are other, harder-to-define rewards – swimming past water lilies and nesting ducks, breathing in the watermelon scent of the mud, sailing in slow breaststroke past weeping willows. It is all so different from the pounding lengths of a traditional pool, where it is possible to drag your worries with you from one end to the other. Here, any thoughts are lifted from you as soon as you climb in. The cold is too shocking to think of anything at all, and then, when your heart has steadied and you realise you’re not actually going to die, the exhilaration hits you and you feel dizzyingly grateful to be alive.
Esther Freud’s most recent book is ‘Lucky Break’ (Bloomsbury, £11.99). For more in our editorial series on London & The World please visit www.ft.com/reports/london-world-2013