There’s something I seek out to nourish me where ever I am – swimming. Slipping off the side of the pool and pushing off into my first stroke is quite magical. I lane swim – up and back, up and back, up and back. My body responds well to reaching out for each stroke, turning my head for another breath, the rhythmic body stretch and roll. It’s a form of meditation. No external sounds reach me, I hear only internal noise – my breathing and the chatter of my undistracted mind. Sometimes I recite a mantra, keeping tempo with each breath. Sometimes I let my thoughts roam – often finding clarity in corners of my mind not easily discovered out of the water. Swimming untangles and declutters my experience of me.
I enjoy the weightless of water all around me … perhaps something primal, most definitely something laid down in my earliest memories growing up on the beach. I remember learning to swim – my dad, with a pudgy rough hand on each side of my rib cage while I dog paddled and kicked my feet. I was about three years old …his hands fully encircling my torso, then one day he just let go. Once I’d mastered the float and fish manoeuvres I’d swim among the seaweed and watch small fish darting ahead of me. I’d peer into the dark caverns, watch the seaweed sway in harmony with underwater swells, and I’d swim into the deep bay so I could watch the sun’s fan-like rays slice through the water all the way to the sandy seabed …. shimmering, turning, refracting its magic light through the surface.
The sea is my favoured medium for water immersion – it is where life crawled from to begin our trajectory toward Homo sapien sapien billions of years ago – it is the womb water of our planet. Rivers have never quite captured me the same. I empathise with their rush to reach the sea … sometimes falling and crashing, sometimes sliding gently over plains and through valleys – pulled on by gravity, by a vacant space in front, and pushed on by a thousand trillion droplets crushing in from behind. Unlike the sea, their lexicon is limited, bounded by banks – unlike the sea, the other side is imaginable.
So, when the sea is not available to me, I find a pool. It’s my first google map search when I arrived somewhere new …. swimming pools near me.
On my travels I’ve become familiar with many swimming pool – indoor and outdoor, private and public, good and not-so-good.
Hampstead Heath – London
My first visit to the Ponds at Hampstead Heath was in the height summer. I hadn’t realised you could actually swim there – pond swimming was not something I’d ever indulged in, other than flopping about as a child in the muddy pond on the farm trying to catch tadpoles with a net made from my mother’s old stockings. All that dirty water with feet-sucking mud-sinking edges never won out over the beach. So my first encounter with the ponds did not enamour me to climbing into my swim suit and diving in. The water was dark green, almost black, and the pond was edged with reeds and vegetation just waiting to tangle around your feet and pull you beneath the surface. On my first visit I’d been happy to sit on the grassy banks above the Women’s Bathing Pond, enjoy the sunshine, good company and watch other women swim.
The Ponds at Hampstead Heath are open all year round and have separate bathing ponds for men and women, and one for mixed bathing. I like this opportunity for gendered areas, but it makes me wonder just how far we’ve come in this so-called post-feminist age as I become to feel a wonderful ease in the atmosphere in the Women’s area. I’ve stumbled upon numerous nudist beaches in various places on my travels, but not experienced this kind of ease in a mixed gender areas. During my first visit that summer, women were sun bathing in all stages of undress.
The ponds were originally dug in the 17th and 18th centuries as water reservoirs but now look like natural ponds surrounded by trees and grassy banks. The cleanliness and safety of the ponds for swimmers is not guaranteed, however regular water quality tests aim to minimise health risks to swimmers. There’s also strong warnings about the dangers of swimming in really cold water, because it is, really cold water. Though the numerous ducks swimming about on the water each time I visited never seemed fazed by either the cold or the featherless swimmers.
I waited until November to take my first dip in the Ponds at Hampstead Heath. It was pretty cold being winter, but I chose a sunny still day so at least I didn’t need to battle rain and wind on my walk home. I was staying in a very pleasant and extremely expensive home on the edge of the Heath so I only had a short walk home and I could run a deep hot bath and soak in it until the warmth returned. However, I didn’t need that. My first experience swimming was surprisingly wonderful!
I went through the gate at the Women’s Bathing Ponds with a small amount of anxiety bunched, like ill-fitting socks, around my ankles. I had told myself that I’d forgive myself if I changed my mind. But really, there would be no turning back – there never really is in my world…the desire for stretching boundaries always wins out. The changing rooms were quite modern in a rustic sort of way. Wooded benches and board walks, no separate units for modesty, cold post-swim showers, and trust rather than lockers, for your belongings.
Ok, I thought, I can do this. There were about five or six women sitting in small groups by the changing rooms chatting or in various stages of dress or undress. I changed quickly, left my things in my backpack on a hook and walked to the small jetty with vertical steps for descending gently into the pond. There were two women already swimming about, ever so slowly, heads above water, no splash, no haste. At various points in the pond were buoys that I presumed were there as markers, or perhaps places of refuge where you could cling to while awaiting rescue. As a seasoned swimmer, and one who grew up swimming in the freezing Cook Strait, I figured this would be a doddle.
I lowered myself into the water, step by step allowing my body time to acclimatise. I’d read of the cold shock response, when people jump into really cold water … and die. Wasn’t going to let that happen – gently, gently. The immersion experience wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, so I swam slowly around the buoys consciously breathing deep and regular. I’d swum in cold water on the Cote Azure in winter and, although it was relatively warmer than the water at the Ponds, I’d noticed the effect it had on my ability to fill my lungs with sufficient breath to swim crawl, as I do in a pool. But it wasn’t my breathing that challenged me in the ponds, it was the stinging pain that began in my feet and then appeared in my hands as well. The pain was so extreme that I decided it was time to get out. I’d noticed other women swimming with wet-suit booties and mittens, and now it was clear why that was a good idea, infact, a necessity. Afraid that the pain would creep to the rest of my body I swam back to the jetty and climbed out of the pond. As I emerged I felt as if I was stepping into a warm room – despite it being no more than 10C and I was only wearing a wet swimsuit. The prospect of a cold shower had been more than just a little horrifying before I’d taken a swim, but as I turned the shower tap the cold water felt soft and warm. My entire body was pink, as if I’d been laying in the sun all day and the headache that had sat like a heavy spiked veil around my head when I arrived, was now gone – completely gone! What a wonderful way to cure a headache. I became a convert to this wonderfully London experience of Hampstead Health Pond swimming.