The Pond

Last week the winter rope was finally lifted. Cutting spring’s ribbon to a full length pond. A balmy 15.5 degrees.

Slippery body kicks through unexpected warm water patches, naked fingers cupped, neoprene gloves gone.

Audacious fluffy duckings skitter across the water, almost brushed by breaststroke arms. Willow blossom stars surface dance, midges hover.

Around the far corner with sun searing, shut-eyed face as serious front crawler splashes past on home stretch. One more lap, then I haul dripping body up slimy metal steps. Face pressed in towel, limbs tired.

Sun worshippers scatter across meadows, eyes closed, chins up, basking in new heat. Spring’s reward for winter endurance.

K (50) meets me on a bench in the muddiest of the meadows. She travels light, a practical clutch of swimming essentials. She already swam ‘illegally’ in a lake nearer to home with friends that morning but since she’s here she’ll have a second dip.

We’ve only exchanged a few brief emails before this first encounter. I know she’s a medic, three teenage children, a single parent. With an immediate intimacy created by the cocoon of sanctuary at the pond, she speaks of years parenting a hospitalised child, the end of her marriage, the unwavering support of female friends, spoken often through tears – of gratitude, the deep pain of motherhood, of relief.

Despite layers of jumpers and clutching a thermos of tea wrapped in gloves, I’m shivering after my swim. K urges me to get moving, concerned about my dropping temperature, kindly attentive but without a fuss. She volunteers a hug, an acknowledgement that two strangers just shared something remarkable by the standards of the outside world. ’I’d love to be part of your project’ she says. ‘I’ve never felt particularly comfortable in my own skin, but that’s getting so much better now, partly due to the accepting community at the pond.’

It’s been a while since I’ve seen this heron, strutting the sidelines of swimmers. Sharp suspense, angle-poised to spear reed bank rodents whilst nearby neon woolly hats bob casually in winter breaststroke.

January battling resistance. Pigheaded commitment to pointlessness through drizzle, hammering downpours, ice sheets. Stabbing shock of cold, shaking teeth-chattering re-dress, feet in bucket. Exhilaration. Repeat.

There is a place, hidden away down an unremarkable track, marked only by a steady pilgrimage of women clutching waterproof bags. In one direction they wear a steely determination, the other a lightness of load. A heavy, clanging gate cuts through the quiet; behind it a place cut off from the industriousness of London except for the occasional overhead plane.

I came to Kenwood Ladies Pond this summer under duress of an attentive new friend who I suspect, knowing its restorative natural powers, saw an unspoken need that I had failed to identify in myself. My intention (apart from to satisfy her insistence) was to briefly sketch in the meadow before our swim, as part of a planned personal project to visually document various parts of the capital throughout the year.

Amongst the chattering crowds of women looking for a cool dip in the oppressive city heat, however, I found in that moment an unexpected respite. Something well beyond a companionable swim with a friend in dubiously murky waters. Something that required more attention than one afternoon’s quick sketching.

What began is this project: A year-long visual homage to the Pond, the women who swim there, and the wildlife whose habitat is momentarily shared; revisiting this one place many times a week, as the summer crowds dwindle and a bunch of hardy perennials endure declining temperatures. With only a sketchbook and pencil, photography strictly forbidden and no 4G spot to be found (and now increasingly the shaky hands of a post-swim chill), my studio work is growing around very basic sketches, visual memory, and a number of remarkably accommodating swimmers-come-models.