London is a city that refuses to be ‘done’. However tired you think you are of it, you’re still guaranteed to find something to make you gasp just around the corner.
For me and my friends Hampstead Heath proved to be one of these places, arriving exactly when we needed it — on a warm and sticky September’s day that promised to be the hottest in record. As old as the city itself, the Heath spans over 700 acres, housing insects, wildlife and protected woodland. It’s existence is utterly antithetical to the roaring, intestinal roads of central London just a few miles away.
The Kenwood Ladies Pond is one of three bathing ponds on the Heath. In the age of lads mags and nude photos the concept of having a female-only pond to protect modesty seems laughable at first, but on this day it seemed like a exquisite blessing to only have to compete with half of the population in escaping London’s throbbing heat.
Entering the pond vicinity via a leafy secluded path and a sign that reads ‘men not allowed beyond this point’ feels a bit like finding your own secret garden. Mobile phone signal disappears as you enter an enclosed area lapped by a thick covering of trees and shrubs. The pond itself, accessible by steps attached to wooden decking, is surrounded by weeping willows — branches skimming the water.
‘Bathing’ implies a luxurious, leisurely activity. ‘Ladies bathing’ even more so, but launching yourself into cold murky water of unknown depth for the first time requires a bit of stiff upper lip, despite the heat. Once you’re in, though, the exhilarating feeling of sailing through the the pond beats a chlorine-laced swimming pool hands down. Unchained to pool sides and laps, you’re free to swim in any direction you choose, at eye level with the occasional passing duck.
Separated by shrubbery is a sunbathing area called the meadow. Although not lush and floral as the name suggests, the meadow is an important part of what makes the pond so special, and on this day towels occupy every spare inch. Sunbathing topless has been permitted here since the 70s and given a few hours it’s hard to imagine that even the shyest of women wouldn’t feel at ease abandoning her bikini top. The feeling of sun on naked chest is a wonderful thing, and here, free of judgement, women of all shapes, sizes and shades can let go and relax into themselves.
After several blissful hours and fully charged with positive energy we leave the pond and begin walking home. The late-summer heat hangs soft and heady over the heath. Almost immediately some boys on bikes shout something vaguely sexual at us.
And just like that we’re snapped back to reality.
Reposted from my Medium