A Well of Collective Memory: At the Pond

The last time I swam in the ocean was (maybe) seventeen months ago. At home, Aotearoa New Zealand, a rushed dunk at dawn before driving back up to Auckland Airport to catch my flight back here (home?).

Growing up in Auckland meant a childhood spent never far from the sea. We spent our summers on islands—Waiheke, surrounded my mansions in Mumsie’s cliffside lockwood, cousins and siblings sleeping in bunks and on the floor, and a scramble down the cliff to spend the hours at the beach and in the tidepools being burnt to a crisp; or isolated in The Bay of Islands on Moturua. We would drive five hours, clamber onto a boat, and finally land on the golden sand, dragging all our linen, food, toilet paper, and books needed for two weeks—the rest of the year, the beach was still near. I remember blustery days on boats or bridges watching the grey green beneath me. Or how there were some days, even in winter, when we could roll up our jeans to walk in the water.

Those summers came back as I took a breath and swam under, blue pushing from all sides, at Dorset’s Man O’War bay (twinned I suppose with its colonised Man O’War on Waiheke). Like in New Zealand the salt kept me afloat in that pseudo-lagoon and dried in flakes on my reddening skin.

There’s a certain sense of focus and release the moment you’re immersed in a body of water. A moment akin to passing thousands of pieces of art, but really seeing one, akin to cycling home in the dark, having sex, true friendship, or looking at the stars. I missed swimming when I moved here. I missed the sand and rush of hot and cold all at once.

And so I began swimming in the river.

It’s not the same—slick green water and banks on either side—but it’s something. It’s England I suppose, with its sense of control and neatness and perfection. I started going to the river before I heard what wild swimming was: in New Zealand, wild swimming was just swimming. It’s all wild there. Instead of walking out onto rocks and sand that stick to the wet, I drag myself onto a bank of green grass, manicured. Instead of water so clear I can see the sting-rays swim beneath me, it darkens as it goes down, and I can only see the weeds once I’m in them.

I’m yet to make the pilgrimage to Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, but from reading Daunt’s At the Pond I know I’m not the only one to find solace in swimming. It’s a collection of essays, about the pond yes, but more about the women who swim in the pond. The pond is where a body of water meets the bodies of women—Eli Goldstone narrates a summer spent living near the pond, a summer of sex of social inertia; Nina Minga Powles reminds me of the power of language and how, like water, language is an agency for change; and Sophie Mackintosh sees the pond as an indicator of time: seasons, meteorological or otherwise, pass, and the pond is a well of collective memory.

Alongside the book, my connection to the pond is twitter, of course. The sphere of London Literary Ladies reaches through the interweb and I see snippets of life at the pond—chic older women, books read, picnics eaten, pimms, politics, the first swim of the season, and the last (but at the time, we don’t know it’s the last). Like the pond itself, At the Pond is a meeting place for women who, like me, find solace and strength in submerging, in swimming.

I live close to the river, close enough to cycle there and back multiple times a day. In summer, when the sun sits so high it feels like it will never go down, I spend most afternoons there. Sometimes it’s with friends, but I’m usually alone and happy for it. Like the summers of my childhood, it’s a summer spent swimming, it’s different, greener, controlled. But it’s water, and so, I swim. Reading is what I do (don’t we all) as I wait to dry, the tips of my fingers pucker the pages with damp, and it’s At the Pond I’ll be taking with me again and again.

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