Highgate Ponds – spring swimming in London

“The deep, natural water of the Highgate Men’s Pond the following day was considerably colder than the cosseted High Point pool had been at the end of September. It is a marvellous second–best to Highgate Ladies’ Pond for a swim.”

The temperature was up and London felt giddy. And so I slung my still–damp swimming shorts and a towel in my rucksack and jumped on the train to Kentish Town, walking briskly up the hill to Hampstead Heath and the cooling waters of Highgate Men’s Pond.

I’ve been here before on this mission of mine. But much like the mixed ponds on the other side of the Heath, I see this pond as my more public, less convenient version of Roger’s moat. A place to come to think and to swim when other options aren’t viable.

I edged around the perimeter fence, catching sight of the odd swimmer by the jetty as the sun threw a glittering light over the surface of the vast body of water. I reeled off a few pictures and then took a purposeful walk down into the sun trap changing area. The ‘swimming university’ which Roger found here on his autumn dip was very much in session.

Sunbathers lined the one side where the early spring sunshine reflected off of the walls and made the whole place feel substantially warmer than it really was. Two gents discussed how swimming in Ireland has changed down the years, sitting cross–legged and swearing liberally. It felt joyous to be in such company.

I changed quickly, pulling on my shorts and trying to stride as purposefully towards the water as possible. On the jetty, the coconut matting was still down, a foot–friendly leftover from the winter. The ropes, however, had been put out, pushed back to allow the regulars to swim further as the water’s temperature rose. Today it was into double digits, according to the lifeguard’s blackboard. A balmy 10ºC.

I slid in at the far steps and gasped hard. As I pushed into the greenish water, the wind slapped a small wave into my face. My wetsuit swim on the River Bure last week seemed a long way away as I settled into a heads–up breaststroke close to the jetty’s edge. It was a brief, but glorious dip. Within two minutes I was pulling myself up on the other side, slapping wet footprints on the matting and then on the concrete floor of the changing area.

Grabbing my starchy towel, I dried off quickly, a chill running across my back and chest. I felt pleasingly braced as I wrung out my shorts, wrapped them up and shoved them back in my bag, leaving the chattering locals behind.

Doubtless I will return here many times over the summer, the moat a few miles from my home. Walking back through Highgate, I began plotting my next swims, more challenging, further afield. But no matter where I travel, few have the power to calm in the face of city stress like a minute or two in these redemptive waters.

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