In the city in summer, a kind of collective urban mentality develops. Every square of green space is utilised, sunbathers bake in bikinis in the parks, citizens head en masse to the riverside and tourists on Boris bikes lurch ineptly along the city’s major arteries. A sticky Wednesday evening edging on thirty degrees is not to be wasted, so yesterday a friend and I met at Gospel Oak after work and schlepped our tired bodies up and over the Heath, pausing only briefly to savour the view from the heights of Parliament Hill.
Others had similar intentions. The ancient paths of the heath were filled with a steady trickle of bathers wrapped in towels who left a trail of damp soil in their wake. The final helpings of the day’s sunlight filtered through the leaves, casting kaleidoscope patterns on the grass. At the entrance, the pond was abuzz with activity. Groups of friends, couples, solitary swimmers – everywhere people and the pleasing thwack of wet feet against floor. A row of dilapidated wooden cubicles painted black represent the changing rooms. This is swimming without adornment. There are no lockers, no gleaming blue tiles, no entrance fees (if you’re lucky) – just three ponds and a few buoys thrown in for good measure, one wizened lifeguard and a large helping of fun!
Being one male and one female we used the mixed pond, which invokes a sense of faint scandal in a 1930s baring-your-ankles fashion. I descended down the steps hesitantly, trying not to think about what lurked far beneath, thoroughly expecting the water’s first touch to elicit a shudder and a scream. But the water was unexpectedly pleasant, heated undoubtedly by the midday sun, and bathing there feels like a spectacular treat – open water swimming right in the city, hidden in an alcove shaded by overgrown trees. By the banks, a kingfisher fluttered its brilliant blue wings and we swam and swam and swam, relaxing into the pond’s watery embrace.
Despite the old-fashioned names – Mens Pond, Ladies Pond, Mixed Pond, straight from a Muriel Sparks novel, the swimming holes are a charming paragon of urban London: all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages. Large groups of men plunged in from the jetty, silver-haired women swam laps around the perimeter, twenty-somethings with hair pinned atop their heads trod water while discussing boyfriends and house prices. As I stood wrapped in the delicious clasp of my sun-warmed towel, I watched a couple slightly past middle age reconvene after emerging from the separate changing areas. Both wore Birkenstocks and carried cotton bags from which various items of bathing apparel overflowed. He kissed her lightly on the cheek and entwined his hand with hers. Shall we walk home? she asked smiling, shaking water from her pewter curls as she spoke. Off they went into the sunset and I turned my attention to other people-watching subjects. But, how lovely, I thought as they slipped away, how lovely to spend an early evening swimming about the ponds with your partner. Perhaps, one day, I will do the same.
My friend re-appeared just then and slipped his own arm through mine. We followed the meandering paths towards Hampstead village, and the promise of a train station, soaking up the last rays of the day. If you’re stuck for plans one day and in North London’s reaches, I promise that the ponds are the perfect accompaniment to the dog days of summer. Highly recommended (but keep it quiet, they’re already London’s worst-kept secret as it is!)