When I was a little girl, my parents joked that they couldn’t take me on a walk without packing at least one – if not two – changes of clothes. Perhaps normal for an inquisitive three-year-old, although the particular issue was my gravitation to water. A puddle, a stream, a rock pool, a canal, sometimes the sea, I often ended up dripping and sobbing as my mum emptied water-logged wellies and made all right again with a chocolate biscuit. It was partly a curiosity about what lay below the surface, but also a childish urge to push the limits and see what would happen.
As a teenager, I swam outdoors on-and-off, spending summers on the south-west coast of Cornwall. I was never particularly intrepid, although I did once embark on an annual junior swim in the choppy stretch off Cape Cornwall between the Brisons Rocks and Priest’s Cove. I was hopelessly ill-equipped in my pink bikini and foggy goggles, but I made it back to the shore, triumphant and not quite hypothermic. Eight years ago, in my second year of university in London, I found myself craving cold water. Swimming pools, with their fluorescent lights, didn’t cut it; I had a hankering for somewhere outdoors with trees and birds where I could aimlessly breaststroke rather than pound lengths.
Like many women, I found myself heading to Hampstead Heath’s Ladies’ pond, a place that has become something of an institution since it officially opened in 1925 and, for many female Londoners, a rite of passage. It was a muggy June day and it was only a quick ride on the overground from the flat I was living in at the time. Once I’d navigated my way across the Heath, I felt that I’d stumbled upon some sort of arcadia, screened from view – unlike the Mixed Ponds and Men’s Ponds that I’d passed on my way – by dense oak, alder and willow and rich with ducks and dragonflies. It felt pleasantly rebellious to pass through the gates at its entrance: ‘Women Only. Men not allowed beyond this gate’ read the sign. ‘This water is deep and cold. Competent swimmers only’. It felt wild – exactly the sort of antidote I needed to the man-made city I found myself in. “I love the whole unfettered sense of the pond,’” says Sheila, who, now in her Sixties, started swimming there almost 17 years ago when she was bringing up her young children. “You saunter down the dirt path and go through the open gate into that bucolic place. There is such freedom in just being among women of all shapes, backgrounds and ages.”