Thursday, September 8th, 2016
To celebrate the release of Mary-Rose MacColl’s latest novel, Swimming Home, in ebook, we’re delighted to share the author’s writing about her visit to Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath this summer. Come on in – the water’s lovely!
The water will be cold. While it’s summer and what Londoners call a hot day, the nights are down to six, like a refrigerator at home in Australia. It will be cold. Still, nothing prepares me for the delightful thrill as I ease myself in, the feel of it silky on my skin. I am embraced by willows in a forest filled with magic, my flesh tinged sepia in the warm sunshine. It’s an experience from another time, preserved for 21st century women. Oh, Heaven is the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath!
Yes, it’s cold. But doing my first lap of slow breast-stroke, head out of the water, I feel like Katherine Hepburn in a hat and scarf. She swam here, and brought a box of biscuits for the lifeguards. She swam with the ducks and ducklings, geese and goslings, and all the other birds I don’t know the names of. She swam among the serious swimmers, the unserious swimmers, like me, and the swimmers in-between, ranging in age from nine to ninety. We are all there and for me what’s interesting is that no one is appraising, or ogling , or criticising the bodies we live in.
In Australia, I swim in the sea across Byron Bay on the northern New South Wales Coast, or in a dam west of my home town of Brisbane among gum trees and sulphur crested cockatoos. These wild water swims are my best life experiences because I am in nature and water at the same time. When I travel it’s wonderful to find other wild waters. I’m in London visiting my sister and here is wild water whose history comes up through the ancient mud that drips off your chin after you get out. A place Baba Yaga would feel right at home, a place women can call their own.
Formed by human-built dams, some 300 years old, the ponds on Hampstead Heath beg to be swum in. For women until the 1920s, swimming was fraught. Researching my novel Swimming Home about the great women swimmers of the early 20th century, I read extraordinary stories of the real women who broke through this barrier so that I can do my lazy crawl across the Ladies Pond without a second thought.
It wasn’t easy for those first women, Australian Annette Kellerman, who was arrested on a Florida beach for not wearing tights with her swimsuit, or Mercedes Gleitze, the first English woman to swim the Channel. When they did swim, and swam so strongly, these great athletes were photographed in their bathing suits out of the water because they looked good. They became vaudeville acts and sex symbols.
There are no cameras or mobile phones at the Kenwood Ladies Pond. They are banned, along with men, and it is as if you can leave your body image at the door. It resets the brain so that you understand, for a little while, what you actually are as opposed to how you look.
I can’t tell you how to find the Ladies Pond. You go to Hampstead Heath, that vast wild space in the middle of an overwrought city. You take a wide path up the hill that leads to another smaller path over a bridge and then still another path leads down to an old gate overhung by willows. At the gate, you put in a pound and follow still another path down to a wooden dock.
And there you are, in Heaven!