How daily swims inspired author Gill Paul’s latest novel

Gill Paul visits the pond on the heath daily. Photo: Christina Jansen

Gill Paul visits the pond on the heath daily. Photo: Christina Jansen - Credit: Archant

Gill Paul talks about the Hampstead Heath Women’s Pond fueling creative inspiration and helping her to deal with grief

The favourite topic of conversation at the Women’s Pond this summer is the maternal skills of the resident birdlife.

One duck is careless enough to lose five ducklings within a day of them hatching, and she frequently abandons the remaining two, leaving swimmers to chase off marauding gulls and magpies.

Another mother has single-handedly kept her entire brood of eight ducklings out of harm’s way and shepherds them round the pond, chest puffed, every bit the proud matron.

What caused the difference? Did the first duck have a negligent mother herself? It’s riveting drama.

All of us who live near Hampstead Heath know how lucky we are to have its verdant semi-wildness on the doorstep.

As a year-round Women’s Pond swimmer, I feel more privileged than most.

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I’ve always loved swimming but how infinitely preferable to do so surrounded by trees, bulrushes and wildflowers rather than institutional tiling, and to be in water that’s a fresh muddy green rather than the colour of toilet freshener and reeking of chlorine.

The pond is vital to me as a writer.

I’m generally stuck behind a computer screen seven hours a day, but an hour’s escape to the pond provides exercise, companionship, and a blast of sunlight for that all-important vitamin D.

It’s stress-relieving, head-clearing, hangover-curing and mood-lifting – especially in winter when the shock of the cold water triggers endorphins to flood the system.

Pond swimming sparks the creative flow as well. I write historical novels, in which I include real characters and do my best to understand what made them tick.

My latest novel, The Secret Wife, begins with the romance between Tatiana, second daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, and a cavalry officer named Dmitri Malama.

She nursed him in 1914 after he was injured during the first week of the Great War, and they were soon smitten.

In her diary she wrote of “sweetheart Malama” and he clearly took a shine to her too because he gave her a gift of a French bulldog she named Ortipo.

My challenge was to take the known facts and try to ease myself into their shoes and tell their story.

But it’s not straightforward to find the necessary headspace at home when emails are pinging into the mailbox and some tasty cheese is calling me to the fridge.

On the walk to the pond, my thoughts remain “real world”. What can I excavate from the freezer for dinner? Did I remember to post that birthday card or has it got buried under the detritus on my desk? In the changing room I’ll likely meet someone I know and we’ll discuss the weather/movies/where to find a reliable electrician/alternative cures for common ailments – and, of course, the ducks.

It takes a couple of laps in the water before the humdrum rational tinnitus fades and I can find the stillness to think. Actually, it’s not active thinking: it’s letting the story emerge from wherever it is in the brain that stories come from.

Author Ray Bradbury said: “Find out what your hero wants, then just follow him”. Sounds easy, but it has to feel authentic and that can be the hard bit.

I’ve solved many a plot problem while pootling round watching reflections shimmer up tree trunks and coots dive for fish. There’s no need to jot ideas down after a swim because if they’re strong enough they stick in mind.

The pond took on a new role for me when my mother died suddenly, shockingly, at the age of 71.

She was symptom-free when we talked on the phone that morning and she described the dishes she was cooking for a dinner party, but shortly after our call she suffered a brain haemorrhage so catastrophic that doctors reckon she was brain dead before she hit the floor.

It took months to get over the shock sufficiently to begin grieving; when I talked to friends, I couldn’t find words to describe how enormous the loss felt.

But in the stillness of the pond, swimming round with the ducks and the fishes, beneath frilly horse chestnut blossom and alongside yellow iris, I could get beyond grief to a place where I remembered all the good stuff – Mum’s singing, her quirkiness, her overwhelming love for her family, for me – and that’s when I started to feel lucky again.

Gill Paul’s novel The Secret Wife is published on September 25 (Avon, £7.99).