Watery bodies: at Hampstead Ladies Pond

Grass green under fingers, dead ringers for frothy fringe on the waters edge, dead ringers for green tinged limbs rippling under the surface of that grey green water at once reflecting sunbeams and thoughtless skies. I step out unclothed onto a concrete diving board to fling myself over the parapet into the pool beneath. A baptism of London wild water. This is the only church I attend, now. The sun, glittering off of the wetness of my arms as they dry is a blessing; a balm. I am soothed by the dappled shifts of shade over the bodies ranged up and over the hillock around me.

I have never in my life experienced the simplicity of being in the same way as I do in the summer at the ladies’ pond. I took my first dip of last year in April, in 11 degree water. It was so cold I felt like I had been stripped bare of my skin, and left the water as bones, chattering in the spring sunshine like teeth, or snow. 

Nor have I experienced such a quiet celebration of femininity and of what it is to be woman. There is a lack of self-consciousness here that isn’t really achieved anywhere else. Bodies are bodies and we are all bodies, all one breathing mesh of womanhood spread out over damp grass. For a few brief hours in the sunshine, we are;

‘strings of inseparable sisters, warm and wet, indistinguishable one from the other’, ‘weaving through ourselves, running rings around each other, heedless, needless, aimless, careless, thoughtless, amok.’

That’s Sadie Plant I’m quoting, from Zeroes and Ones. An excerpt of what it was like before our bodies separated from one into many – I feel that, at the pond, I am returned there to one big watery body. Despite the TERF-y narrative of the pond in recent years, I feel it should remain a space where all women are welcome, and where woman is not defined by people who have internalised the misogynistic doctrine of what a woman is, but rather by the simple fact that a woman is, whilst an arbitrary distinction really, simply someone who is a ‘woman’ cis, trans, or otherwise. All the bodies of women are one body of woman, and whilst each has its own distinct needs and privileges and oppressions to be addressed, all are encompassed under an umbrella term, and bathed in green-grey waters, and drying on sunbathed grass, are one watery body at once.

I wonder if, in this space, there is a strange kind of witchery afoot. Water magic, built to weave us together for an instant. Flash burned into the retina by some sun-photography. Instead of women always as Echo, frozen into muteness by Narcissus’ love for himself; here, woman is power, woman is voice. Narcissus has not been permitted entry, and Echo is free to fall in love with herself, over and over again, reflected and refracted on the surface of the pond.

More than anything, water ties our bodies to the earth. It makes up 70% of us. It’s what we were born from, all those millennia ago, all our cells existed in the primordial oceans, and they exist now. It is a conduit, a mode of connection, a route through which we are haunted by pasts and through which we haunt the future. From Astreida Neimanis:

She also says that water ensures that our being is always becoming. The water in us shifts always, replaced and then spent again. Just as the bodies in the body of water I see through the reeds are replaced in whoops and shouts and splashes of entry, and the blue lipped, shivering invigoration of exit.

Here I can feel that all of this has arisen from the same primordial soup, the trees that shade us, the bodies that are shaded. More than that, we were all born from the amniotic waters of the womb, which, whilst warm instead of freezing as they are in the pond, connect us all. The amniotic pond within the body of mother, which is also a body of water, that was gestated itself, and born when the waters broke and overflowed, flooded, like the banks of a river are breached and broken after too much rain. Even the rain is the same body of water, locked in a cycle of being rain, and being ocean, and being ice. ‘But there are tides in the body’ writes Virginia Woolf – ‘borne like a frail shallop in the deep, deep floods’ out floats the narrative, to be consumed by its bearers – sunk under the tides of bodies, the tides of the bodies.

Here the water allows us to ebb and flow cross time and space. The next time I go in the water it is high summer. I get in and lie on the surface like a star fish with only my face above the water. I tip my head back and the water is so cold that I can’t convince myself I’m not drowning. It takes me ages to relax so that I can feel a part of the surface, dissolve myself into the grey green of the water.

I keep thinking about water’s ability to metamorphose, to transform. It is damned here by the edges of the pond, unable to spread. Yet, were we to free it it would smoothen itself out and spread, absorb itself into things – if it found another vessel it would mould itself to that. ‘Woman’ is as definable as water – as formed as water, as mouldable as water – and yet water remains resolutely itself always.


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