I made my first trip to the Ladies’ Pond at Hampstead Heath last October, and it left me with two jarring realisations about myself.
Firstly, I’m an absolute weakling in cold water, and need an apparatus of thermal devices to warm up after a brief dip. And secondly, I am deeply sexist towards my fellow women.
My proneness to hypothermia has, fortunately, been reduced with increased exposure to the elements. The latter ailment, however, has proved to be a lot harder to thaw out.
The Kenwood Ladies’ Bathing Pond has been a treasured gem of Hampstead Heath in North London since its official opening in 1925. Today, it is the only open water swimming space solely for women in England. There’s also the neighbouring Highgate Men’s Pond, which opened in 1893, and the Mixed Ponds, where people of all genders can swim during the spring and summer months.
The combined three attract over 600,000 visitors a year and are often considered a must-see destination on a visit to London. The ponds’ popularity has only grown in recent years, thanks to a rise in wild swimming and research into cold water therapy. They were even the inspiration for the 2018 documentary, The Ponds, which followed the inspiring stories of regular swimmers at the beloved bathing spots over the course of all four seasons. But despite the glowing PR, I had yet to be sold.
When I thought of “ponds”, mundane images of feeding ducks and Sunday strolls came to mind. Lacking the wildness of oceans, rivers and even their unsexy offshoots, estuaries and channels, ponds were civilization’s attempt to neatly order the wild – a move I took as a direct attack on my identity as an arrogant sea swimmer.
My prejudice applied to all three of Hampstead’s bathing spots but was, ashamedly, most acutely felt towards the Ladies’ Pond. The first time I heard of its existence, the sexist fibres of my mind began to twitch. “Ladies’ Pond?” I scoffed. “This isn’t the Victorian era!”
I pictured a manicured lake of precious women, ladling the water as their neon hats bobbed between lilypads – too lazy to swim the front crawl, too fragile to wet their hair. My discovery that it didn’t even offer the altitude of a diving board, a main attraction of the Men’s Pond, only inflamed these biases.
But, as a regular sea swimmer, I needed my cold water fix, and the Ladies’ Pond was the closest I’d find in London. So, on a sunny Saturday in late October, I peeled on my swimsuit and made my way to Hampstead Heath. I can recall waltzing through the gates of the historic Ladies’ Pond, emboldened by my sea swimming superiority complex, rolling my eyes at the luxury of the changing rooms, and smirking at the dry robes and thermal flasks. I can recall lowering myself onto the ladder, smiling smugly at one of the ducks, and plunging into the water.
The few minutes that followed are mostly a blur, but from what I remember, they involved a lot of swear words, a thrashing towards the deck, an attempt at towelling, and a stumble into first aid. The next thing I knew, I was being defrosted back to life by two lifeguards. One made me sweet tea, another blow-dried my hair. As the cold water evaporated from my body, so did any ego I had left.
After I had warmed up, the lifeguards explained that I’d become mildly hypothermic after exiting the water and advised me to stay at the reception as a precautionary measure. Bundled in a furry coat and beanie heat from lost property, my panic subsided and a rush of feel-good chemicals flooded my brain. But in this clarity of thought, came an uncomfortable realisation: I, a self-proclaimed feminist, harboured my own sexist attitudes towards my fellow women.
I had approached the Ladies’ Pond with a disdain for its women’s only policy, having been conditioned to believe that the absence of a male energy in a space somehow compromised its legitimacy. To exercise only around other women, whom I viewed as smaller and weaker versions of men, made me feel insecure about my own athletic abilities. In many ways, I saw the Ladies’ Pond as the “kiddie’s pool” of open water swimming, where women swam docilely for leisure while the hardened men trained vigorously for competition.
This bias was only exacerbated by my gripe with the word “ladies”. I had always hated being called a “lady”, but until recently, I had never understood why. A search of the word in the thesaurus spits out a glob of synonyms that reduce the woman’s place in society, including “little woman”, “mare” and “doll”. Meanwhile, its original translation in Old English reveals it to mean “mistress of a household”, or “wife of a Lord”. Historically, the word has been used to subjugate the woman – either by belittling and objectifying her, or limiting her identity to an accessory of her male spouse.
The irony is, there is nothing weak or second-class about the women of the Ladies’ Pond. I have become a regular at Kenwood since my hypothermia episode, and each visit has only served to unravel these deep-rooted biases. Over the past four months, I have watched women in their seventies dive into 3℃ water, resurfacing several seconds later without so much as a flinch. I have met women who come to the pond almost every day of the year, braving its Baltic temperatures no matter the weather. I have seen women recovering from injury or illness ease themselves down the ladder, knowing that the shock that awaits is nothing in comparison to what they have already endured.
What makes these women even more impressive is their total lack of bravado. In the changing room, I frequently overhear women sharing tips on how to minimise risks such as drowning or hypothermia. The lifeguards have also been a well of expert knowledge, advising newcomers (along with stubborn regulars) on how to swim in the ponds safely. Eat starches and protein before, they urge. Redress standing in a basin of warm water, and get out before you get comfortable.
The women of the Ladies’ Pond have been a tonic to the machismo that has, unfortunately, permeated the cold water swimming community in recent years. Respect for the elements and the body is enshrined in its culture, and will not be undercut by any extreme trends or dangerous myths circulating on social media.
Today, I am proud to be a Ponder – and even prouder to be a Ladies’ one. I can now see that I wrongfully believed that “real strength” is enduring pain, regardless of what your body needs or wants. Ironically, it is this testosterone-fuelled narrative that only left me weaker.
I have since learned to ignore this harmful messaging by slowing down and listening to my body, and I have the women of Kenwood Ladies’ Pond to thank for that. I am also incredibly regretful that I almost wrote off the very people who helped me learn this lesson – a cautionary tale of just how embedded internalised misogyny can be.
Hopefully, it won’t take getting hypothermia for others to learn the same.
Emma Dooney is a lifestyle news writer and freelance journalist