Why Highgate Ponds are ‘the perfect getaway’

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It’s finally outdoor swimming season. Here photographer Ruth Corney explains their appeal in her own words and pictures


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'You meet such inspirational characters.' Ruth Corney
‘You meet such inspirational characters.’ Ruth Corney
An award-winning photographer based in north London, Ruth Corney recently worked with the writer Caitlin Davies on the book Taking the Waters – A swim Around Hampstead Heath, from which some of our images have been taken. Much of Ruth’s work has a watery feel, from her portraits of Victoria Baths in 1992 to, more recently, Ironmonger Row Baths. Here she explains her love for the Ponds in her own words.

There is something so giving about the ponds. I have been going on a weekly basis for the past 20 years and I feel so lucky to have them. I love the bustle of London. It’s such an energetic and exciting place to be, however I do need to escape to the tranquillity of nature. The ponds are the perfect getaway: nature’s ability to restore and reinvigorate never ceases to amaze me.

7:30am is rush hour. In the last ten years or so, pond swimming has exponentially grown in popularity. There seems to be a trend towards fitness and using the ponds for exercise purposes. In particular, I have noticed a lot more sculpted triathlon trainees, who have realised the benefits of training outdoors rather than in the congested atmosphere of the gym.

'The ponds are the perfect getaway.' Photo: Hilary Townley
Ruth Corney:’They have become an important part of a lot of people’s daily ritual.’ Photo: Hilary Townley
Granted, the ponds aren’t for everyone. If you can’t stand the idea of mud and weeds then you should probably head to the lido instead. It is just as refreshing and you can have a proper swim there. I remember meeting these three elderly women (right) who had had a sleepover the night before and woken up at the crack of dawn to head over to the lido for an early morning swim. Their youthful energy was so life affirming and contagious.

The female pond used to be predominantly elderly women. You would meet such inspirational characters – women who were just so alive and so beautiful. Regardless of their age, shape, size or the weather, they would walk around in complete comfort. It is a really empowering thing to see. I remember taking photographs of the pond in winter and while the ladies would be standing there in their swim gear without a care in the world, I was layered up in gloves and a scarf, shivering my way through the shoot.

'Escape to the tranquility of nature.' Photo: Ruth Corney
‘I need to escape to the tranquility of nature.’ Photo: Ruth Corney
The weather doesn’t faze people as much as you would assume. The regulars seem to have acquired a super-human thick skin and the ponds are still popular in the winter. They have become an important part of a lot of people’s daily ritual – even on New Year’s Day there is a queue to get in.

There are some really great characters to be found. I have had such a wonderful opportunity to talk to and photograph people from all different walks of life. Orthodox Jews, athletes, poets, writers, city workers – you name it, the ponds have got it.

Throughout the last century, countless people have swum there. In the women’s pond in particular, there is something incredibly powerful about being in the same spot as so many generations before us. You become blissfully aware of this when you enter the water.

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For more pics and info on Ruth head to her website here. Read why Tim Sowula loves the Men’s Ponds here.

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