Ripples on the surface of the murky brown water reflect a kaleidoscope of colours – blue, from the almost cloudless sky above; green, from the leafy trees, bushes and rushes enveloping the pond; brilliant white where the sunlight catches on the water’s surface, and the occasional flash of red from the lifeguards’ bright shorts and shirts.
A gaggle of geese glide gently by, seemingly oblivious to the swimmers bobbing and splashing around them.
From the platform at the water’s edge I take a tentative step down the ladder, then two. As my toes touch the water, I let out an involuntary yelp. It’s cold. I pause for barely a second, gathering up my resolve, then launch myself in. Cold is, after all, why I’m here.
We’re in the middle of a heatwave at the moment. Day after day of sunshine and stifling, inescapable heat – the kind of heat that this city simply wasn’t designed for. The new build flat I now live in definitely wasn’t. Constructed to be as energy efficient as possible, it soaks up all the heat of the day and then refuses to let go of it. The result is that, even with two fans blowing, I’ve been lying awake at night, soaked in sweat.
So yes, I needed to cool off. But how? Where?
Hampstead Heath has been on my route to and from work for getting on for five years now. Despite this, I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve stopped off en route – the result of a busy schedule combined with vagaries of the British weather.
This week, though, in a rare alignment of the stars, the good weather has coincided with a week when I’ve had an almost empty diary.
I’d heard about the swimming ponds on the Heath years ago, but had always been put off the idea of going for a dip in them – surely swimming in a pond can’t be safe? What might be lurking under the surface that I couldn’t see? And wouldn’t it be just the tiniest bit cold?
I’m not entirely sure what changed my mind, but something did. Perhaps it was the heat – at the end of a long day spent in an inadequately ventilated office, on my way home to a stifling, inadequately ventilated flat, there was nothing I wanted more than to throw myself into the nearest expanse of cool water.
So that’s what I did. And having done it, I couldn’t help but wonder why I’d never done it before. Swimming out in the open, listening to the birds tweeting overheard and feeling the warmth of the sun on my face, with the blue sky above me and the trees all around me, was a truly wonderful experience. It was so beautiful and so peaceful in this secluded corner, with no children running around and (this being the ladies’ pond) no men either. It was like being on holiday, but without leaving the comfort of London.
But hold on a minute, I can hear you saying. This is a blog about cycling. Why am I writing about swimming?
Simple. Because it reminded me of one of the reasons why I love cycling so much.
Hampstead Heath ladies’ pond is not the easiest place to get to. It’s quite a trek from the nearest Tube or Overground station – from Gospel Oak it’s up a hill, along a side street and then down a narrow lane. True, there are buses that pass nearby, but they’re not particularly convenient. And the time it would take to get there, switching from train to bus, would eat into valuable swimming time.
Essentially, if I hadn’t been on my bike I probably wouldn’t have gone. And if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have discovered what may now be one of my favourite places in London.
This is what I love about cycling. It gets me to places that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to easily – places that the strictures of timetables, train lines and bus routes would otherwise render out of reach.
It gives me the freedom to go where I want, when I want – to turn left instead of right, to change my plans at the drop of a hat and to find something new to explore and to discover.
This, above all, is why I cycle.