Hampstead Heath ponds baptism leaves a lasting mark on authors

PUBLISHED: 13:48 03 May 2012

Swimmers at the ponds in 1920s

Swimmers at the ponds in 1920s

Frances Lincoln/ Caitlin Davies /Ruth Corney

Two new books have been influenced by the legendary ponds on the Heath- so our reporter takes a dip with the authors

”Ladies, ladies, when you get into the pond remember to concentrate on your breathing,” says the lifeguard. It becomes clear how wise that advice is once I descend into the freezing cold water. As the shock of the cold travels from my toes to my nose, it steals my breath away so I gasp embarrassingly.

Meanwhile, a group of ladies around 60 years my senior swim gracefully around the waters as a light spring breeze rustles through the trees.

You might wonder why, at 12.30pm on a Tuesday, a Ham&High reporter is descending into Hampstead Heath’s Ladies’ Pond. And, indeed, what an octogenarian swimming session has to do with books at all.

But this place has provided inspiration for two books recently and the reasons become clear when one makes the journey down the mud track to the remote waters and looks out across the still waters.

“Look at this – idyllic. It’s unbelievable,” says Barbara Zitwer as we stand in towels after a sense-shocking dip.

The New York-based literary agent was inspired to write her novel after coming across the ponds a few years ago. “The first time I came here was October 16 six years ago. I remember the date because it was the day after my mother’s funeral. I flew from the Frankfurt book fair to London. I was stuck in London. I love Hampstead Heath so me and my friend came here to walk and she said, ‘Do you want to go to the women’s pond?’ And as I came upon the pond, it blew my mind. I couldn’t believe it. It’s like a Turner painting come to life.”

In her book, an American woman comes to England and settles in a small village. She happens upon a group of tough-as-old-boots women who are part of a swimming club. They teach her lessons about love and friendship – even when her love life means that those friendships are tested to the limits.

The story is complete fiction but has echoes in reality. Zitwer herself happened upon the pond by chance and made some life-long friends with the regular swimmers there. Recalling her first swim, she says: “It was sunny and warm but it was the fall. One of the swimmers said to me, ‘Would you like to swim?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said to go inside and get a bathing suit. So I did and I went in. It was unbelievable – the experience of my life. That day I got out of the water and met Wynn Cornwell, who is 92, and she’d been swimming at the pond for more than 60 years every day. May (Allen) is 85 and she’d been swimming at the pond every day too. It was spiritually uplifting and unforgettable.”

The ponds, of course, have a history that is almost stranger than fiction. Frequented by the great and the good of the area, they have been the place of spiritual baptism for many a swimmer. Another book, the non- fiction Taking The Waters: A Swim Around Hampstead Heath by Caitlin Davies, chronicles the social history of all the ponds and the lido on the Heath. The book uncovers that people have been swimming at the ponds for more than 200 years and even champion swimmers and world famous divers have been spotted there. (The first female Olympic swimming captain trained at the Men’s Pond.” Davies, a Parliament Hill-based writer and journalist, has swum at the ponds for most of her adult life and decided to put together the book after realising that there was no social history of how the ponds came to be.

Through more than 100 interviews, Davies has pieced together a history of the ponds and even investigated the rumours, including that Katharine Hepburn used to swim at the Ladies’ Pond, which was handed over for women to use in the 1920s. “It is true that she swam there and there was one occasion when she helped to teach a young girl who was scared to dive,” says Davies.

The book is one of memories, says Davies, and it is clear that there are lots of precious ones for locals of time spent there and, perhaps, of breath-stealing dips like mine. It is clear what has brought swimmers back time and again to take a dip. “You can be in the pond and you don’t feel you are in London,” says Davies. “It’s beautiful there.”

The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society by Barbara J. Zitwer is published by Short Books priced £7.99. Taking The Waters by Caitlin Davies with photography from Ruth Corney is published by Frances Lincoln on May 17 priced £12.99. There will be a launch of Taking The Waters on May 21 at Daunt Books in South End Green from 6.30-8.30. All welcome.

n The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society by Barbara J. Zitwer is published by Short Books priced £7.99. Taking The Waters by Caitlin Davies with photography from Ruth Corney is published by Frances Lincoln on May 17 priced £12.99. There will be a launch of Taking The Waters on May 21 at Daunt Books in South End Green from 6.30-8.30. All welcome.

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