By Andre López Turner
A personal note about the warm camaraderie shared by swimmers in the freezing waters of Hampstead Heath’s Ponds in north London. Our collaborator, who for years have worked in drugs and alcohol rehabilitation, has become quite evangelical about his «new cold water swimming addiction»
It must have been early autumn, cooler winds, tobacco-coloured leaves on the concrete floor stinging underfoot. To my left a husky looking older chap, naked, clothes dangling from a hook, rubbing a towel over his scraggy wet hair.
“Looks like the seasons a changing, seen you around through summer, you in for the winter.”
“Sure am,” I said, without pause, without thinking that far ahead.
“I thought you’d be a winter guy, could see it in your eyes, it’s terrific you know.”
I can’t remember who this chap was but he’s one of what I call “the old guard.” Guys who have been swimming daily in Hampstead Heath’s Pond for many years, with a heavy emphasis on the plural. I was secretly chuffed at the brief conversation. In my head it was an invitation and a challenge. I’d been admiring the guys who swam here every morning that summer as I’d been rehabbing a back injury. I’d loved their witty, cultured banter and camaraderie. I’d occasionally got into some profound conversations, and gently introduced myself whenever I could. Every topic seemingly on the menu – from Chelsea’s back four to Saul Bellow’s Herzog.
It must have been December, more or less.
“It’s on a downward trajectory from now on in,” one fella said.
“4 degrees and under and you know about it, gets interesting,” said another, “and when it snows, oh its sublime when it snows, just marvellous and atmospheric.”
Strange as it seems, this reverie, camaraderie, and expectation of the freezing water to come had me walking, driving, and occasionally biking to the pond in a state of excitement every dawning morning. The pond, the chaps and the unknown – water descending in temperature that burns the skin, dilates the eyes, and can (for the unconditioned) propel the breath into a near hyperventilating state. Then there’s the sun coming up, mist rising off charcoal-coloured water, cormorant’s bearing witness and pond swimmers’ foggy breaths. The flora and fauna shedding its layers, almost as nude as the swimmers themselves. Lifeguards clasping hot drinks and issuing friendly good mornings and signals of solidarity. Men grinning at each other, strangers saying hello. Things a Kiwi living in London misses and finds so rare.
Many I know expressed much admiration for what I was doing and others humorously questioned swimmers’ sanity. Some claimed it was a form of masochism! These claims weren’t lost on me. For years I’d worked to help people break their criminal and addictive behaviours and heard the below quote of incredulity.
“Dre, if you’d told me I’d be smoking crack, taking Heroin, robbing, and end up here (jail, community re-hab), I’d have said you’re mad,” they would often say.
I now find myself using the same phrase, substituting the words drugs and criminality for “freezing cold water,” and “outdoor pond.”
I started calling cold water swimming/immersion… my healthy addiction.
“You’re bloody mad, bonkers,” my wife said. She is now a swimmer!
“Good for you, and those people, not me,” uttered many.
“Oh, how intriguing, I bet its good for you but not me,” others quip.
I found I’d become quite evangelical about my new cold water swimming addiction, akin to an addict in a twelve-step programme. Thankfully, I was self-aware enough not to become too big a “pain in the arse” about this new healthy habit, nor could I don a dry robe either. Nevertheless, I surprised myself with this craving, come longing to be in the pond first thing every morning regardless the weather – ice, wind, rain, and the holy grail – snow.
The steeling of myself mentally to do something I was told by some to be “brave,” “heroic,” “fucken nuts” spurred me on. Yet it was the men themselves that kept me coming back. Being met with smiles, grins, and delicate euphemisms for being freezing is a joy. When I struggled for motivation, I’d tell myself to “get going and get in, harden up.” I’d tell myself it’s about health and resilience, 83-year-old Jean will be there, and he’ll be banging out chin ups before and after immersing. BBC John and his French foreign legion beret will be there. Come on – get going. Mike will be laughing and cracking a joke…”
As I approached the pond the fantasies in my head, never shared until now, were equally amusing to me. I imagined I was entering the crazy realms of the big wave surfing brotherhood, or the mountain climbing gang. Obviously, the above endeavours are beyond me – hence the fantasy. But the word brotherhood or shared male camaraderie rings true in the pond. And there is an extremism, say eccentricity and bravery attached to plunging into cold water!
I remember my first bitter February morning. I walked into the open plan, roofless changing shed. A nasty northerly wind, whisps of frost biting underfoot. I heard loud groaning, half torturous, half orgasmic in tone, plenty of pink bodies and foggy respiration dangling in the air.
“Morning, can you keep it down fellas, some of us are yet to get in,” I said.
“Oh yes yes, sorry about that, that’s a good point,” said Mike Stokes, a loveable bear of a man.
“My god Andre, I know what you mean, it’s a morning and a half isn’t it, and still the harsher back end of February yet to come,” whispered Mike the actor, whose singing in the showers and Monday morning howl on the pontoon is much cherished.
Another Mike (for there are many Mikes here) grinned and laughed, then continued the torture chamber theme.
«I surprised myself with this craving, come longing to be in the pond first thing every morning regardless the weather – ice, wind, rain, and the holy grail – snow. «
I often find myself walking past cold-water swimmers and quietly saying to myself – “good on you, well done lioness, get in there, good work fella” etc etc. On this February morning I thought carefully on whether I should tell the men how inspiring, brave, and tough they are. I settled on calling them a bunch of “warriors.”
“You know Andre, I’ve never been called a warrior before,” William said, in his crisp, articulate accent, “it’s rather touching you know, thank you very much, enjoy your swim and I look forward to seeing you in the morning,” he said.
As I recall my first winter fondly, I’ll never forget one moody and dark Monday, around 7:15am, just before the ‘old guard warriors” arrived. Another fellow and I were fossicking in our bags.
“Oh shit, I’ll have to wear my boxers, must have left shorts on the plane… who cares, gotta get in.’
I offered to ask a lifeguard for a spare pair of shorts on his behalf.
“No, no, it’s fine…thanks all the same…I’m straight off the plane from Australia and have been craving to get in since Hong Kong, see ya in a minute.”
“I know how he feels,” said Ed, “I’ve been in Mozambique surrounded by crocodiles in their lakes, couldn’t get in. I’ll put you in the WhatsApp group if you like, show you the photos if you’re interested.”
I regularly check the WhatsApp group, over a post swim coffee, for “shot of the morning,” witty exchanges, invites to classical concerts or the odd artistic offering from members of the pond swimmers’ group. Sometimes my bodies shaking means I must explain to a concerned café denizen that I don’t have any neurological condition, rather I’m warming up from the pond. This usually brings a welcomed ego boost, some intrigue, and the odd parting shot from the enquirer.
«I’m straight off the plane from Australia and have been craving to get in since Hong Kong, see ya in a minute.”
“You people are so brave…I must take the plunge one day.”
My teeth are still chattering so I politely eek out a yes, you must. Yet nothing compared to the unknown pond swimmer standing behind me in line for his “Latte on the run.”
“I’ve seen you around, can I enquire why you swim in the pond?” he asked. I replied with my standard answer involving health benefits and bonding with nature. His answer intrigued me more.
“Oh, it’s quite simple,” he said, “I’m getting a bit long in the tooth as they say, so what a place to go, in the pond, startling sunrise coming up to greet my last waking moments – sublime, heavenly in fact, but I’m not ready to go yet so hopefully see you around.”
Andre López Turner is a podcaster, writer, keen open-air swimmer and a mental and physically well being practitioner. He is the author of the book D-Pendency dealing with drugs and alcohol abuse. He is Co-presenter of the podcast The Programme in ZTR Radio. He lives in North London.
Painting by John Richardson, Hampstead Heath’s Pond Path, 2024