Heath150: How the bathing ponds got me back on my feet

'The biting cold was addictive'

Monday, 28th June 2021 — By Andrew Plaistowe

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Andrew Plaistowe says he can attest to the mental health benefits of swimming on the Heath

A FRIEND, a born and bred Londoner who grew up near the Heath, first took me to the Men’s Pond.

By his own admission, he is a fair-weather swimmer, and May 1 the first is the day he returns to the water. It was something he thought I might enjoy too.

He was right; but it quickly became something I didn’t just enjoy, it was something I needed. I never thought I’d have a mid-life crisis (I was too smart to fall into that trap) but at 40, right on the mid-life cue, I had one.

Unprocessed childhood grief, my teens and early twenties in the closet, and a subsequent string of failed relationships had left me broken.

I started therapy and realised I had been sitting on a can of worms. Medication followed which, at the time, felt like failure.

When my friend suggested I join him on his May Day dip, anxiety and depression were constant companions. Sleep was a nightmare.

So, when I got in the water, bleary-eyed and panicky after another sleepless night, the effect was incredible.

There’s a lot written about the mental health benefits of cold or open water swimming, and I can attest to the truth of what’s said.

For me, the Ponds became the best way to calm and soothe my mind, to get out of my head and into my body, and to remind myself that I was healthy and well.

After I’d processed the past on the therapist’s couch, I went to the Pond to slew it off.

When I was low, the best times to swim were the still, grey mornings that seemed to match my mood. If I’d been anxious, the biting cold was addictive.

I would emerge, shivering and scoured with an ice-cold clarity that allowed me to see myself objectively; the returning warmth felt like self-compassion radiating from my core to my fingers and toes.

I prefer the spring and summer mornings now, when the sun is at eye level, cutting across the water through the trees.

I love the close encounters with the wildlife: the green-eyed, snake-necked cormorant on its stump; a huge, fat-bellied, hook-lipped fish that occasionally pops up; feeding swifts flicking across the surface.

In the changing rooms afterwards, the chatter and solidarity after a shared experience is mellow and friendly.

Swimming in the Ponds wasn’t the only thing that put me back together and eased me into middle age, but I wouldn’t have got here so quickly if my friend hadn’t shared his love of the Ponds with me on that May morning.

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