Monday, 27 October 2008

Beware of Breeding Swans

On holidays in London I spent two weeks with my sister in law and her partner and child in Kentish Town. I enjoy pretending to be a local, getting to know the rhythms of the community and allowing the layers of my surroundings to reveal themselves.

Nearby was Hamstead Heath. It has a huge public swimming pool (60m x 30m) lined with aluminium rather than tiles. The aluminium creates a beautiful shimmering effect making the water shine. Unfortunately it doesn't change the tempurature. It was freezing and this was June. Nearby lay another swimming hole which was much more interesting.

This is a much longer story than anything I've yet posted. Tell me how it works as a blog entry. Maybe it's better in some other publishing form.

Beware of Breeding Swans

The English are mad. They love the sun - what little there is of it. So any day in summer which even hints of skin cancer, they’re out in droves, on the streets, in their tiny pocket sized backyards and most importantly in their parks.

So there I was on Hampstead Heath, a 350 acre public park in the North West of the city but definitely inner London by any measure. Me and hundreds of others walking, jogging, dogging, eating, drinking, kiting, kissing, sunning, frisbeeing and swimming.

It’s actually 5.30 pm. The sun should be setting. People should be at home preparing meals but here on Hampstead Heath the masses are frolicking. What else? The sun will be up for another 3 hours, its time to indulge and soak up a years supply. In 6 months time they’ll be lucky to have 6 hours daylight.

I’ve got my mini micro fibre travelling towel and my budgie smugglers tucked under my arm and I’m heading for the men’s bathing pond - one of a series of spring fed ponds fringing the northern edge of the Heath.

It’s a bit like heading for the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens for a swim in the duck ponds - the ones that greet you when you enter the main gates. The ones young children throw loaves of bread into despite the warning signs about dangerous bread induced cholesterol levels in ducks.

Anyway the men’s only bathing ponds is my destination. From a distance it looks quaint, inviting and very cold.

There are ducks, swans, men fishing from the bank, a series of wooden buildings housing two lifeguards in red and gold caps, a diving platform and a jetty-like structure pushing out 25 meters into the water.

My English brother-in-law thinks I’m crazy. He’s lived nearby for 20 years and has never swum here. It has a reputation – he confides in me.

Doesn’t worry me. I’m an Aussie and a stretch of water to me is something to be swum in no matter what conditions or the warnings.

The entrance looks innocuous enough. Shaded by trees and lined with deep green English shrubs, a quiet path leads me towards the men’s change shed.

I ignore the ticket machine asking me to pay two pounds for the privilege. Richard has given me the low down on this. The locals are refusing to pay, having swum here for 100 years free of charge, they’re not about to pay the local Camden Council for access to their birthright. It’s a protest.

I love a protest. So in solidarity I ignore the signs. It’s not about the money I tell myself. It’s the brotherhood.

Immediately on pushing open the sprung entrance door I am catapulted into the middle of a large open change room not unlike the old change rooms at Davies Park or Langland’s Park pools of my youth. A room 10m x 30m bordered by a slatted bench below a line of clothes hooks at eye height greets me.

In the middle of this stands a large man. A man not unlike the Maharishi whom the Beatles adopted as their guru in the 60s. He stands naked. Wild hair mimicking Albert Einstein or Andrew Symonds. It’s wild and long and mostly grey. He’s not an old man, probably 40 something with a beach ball for a stomach and in his hand he holds a towel.

This is not unusual in a change room except in this case he’s standing dead centre in this space - out of reach of any clothing hanging above the slatted seats, and seemingly concerned only with the drying of his privates.

I hesitate, look right, left – avoid eye contact with him and choose a spot as close to my entry point as possible.

The Maharishi meanwhile proceeds to elaborately dry himself.

The sun shines into the change room coming through the non existent roof. It catches and lights up a second body – a man stretched languorously on his white towel reading a book and looking very relaxed. I take him for a posturing intellectual for he’s reading some obscure post modernist text whose title makes little sense to me. At least Monsieur Foucault has on a pair of swimming trunks.

Meanwhile the Maharishi continues his ritual. He appears to be having an ongoing problem with his rising damp. I’m terrified that of all the piles of clothes around the room his might be beside mine and that, at any moment, he’ll join me and fix me with his wild stare. Around the perimeter of the room are a number of other men either entering or exiting the swimming ritual. All bar one are not notable as they behave normally – for a men’s only bathing pond change room.

The one who catches my eye is a young Adonis. All blonde hair, smooth white skin and blue eyes. A living Michelangelo sculpture, a David reincarnated … and doesn’t he know it.

He’s wearing a tiny low slung hand towel. Wrapped around his waist this drape, a size too small, shows off a slash of exposed thigh. Adonis distractedly wanders the change room floor, a distant lost look in his eyes – which I am avoiding. Eventually he takes up a position at my end of the pavilion and leans lazily against the wall which separates the change room from the nude sunbathing area.

Adonis has one arm stretched towards the sky and one leg bent at the knee, foot supported by the wall behind. He looks wistful as the sun’s rays lighten his blonde locks creating a halo effect around his head and chiselled features.

In all I’ve probably been here for three full minutes but the atmosphere is thick with unspoken rules and rituals. I’m the outsider here but there’s no point in hesitating, so in 20 seconds flat I’ve dropped my trousers, doffed my t shirt and in one jump I’m in my aussie DT’s and out the door leading to the pond.

Out here there suddenly seems to be a lot of space and time. The sky is blue, the water a murky brown and still. Great for reflecting the drifting clouds above, but not offering the same invitation as the iridescent waters of my regular Queensland beach.
There are a few blokes swimming. Most laze about. One laps the perimeter of buoys marking out the limits for swimmers and the beginning of the fishing zone.

I’ve bought a pair of ear plugs to protect me from what might be contained within a duck/swan/off leash dog inner city pond.

The lifesavers give me some confidence about my immediate physical safety – though I notice that the one device which is present is an old wooden row boat that might not reach me before I disappear forever into the black depths.

No sook when it comes to cold water, I admit to entering this deep dark pool rather tentatively. I use the ladder rather than the diving board and enter inch by careful inch.

It’s not too bad. The ducks keep their distance, no subterranean creatures drag me into the watery Hades; the swans content themselves with preening and I glide, head above water, towards the up welling swell; the natural spring which feeds the expanse of water.

I’m beginning to relax..
I love the view you always get from the water. It’s the reverse of the familiar. In this case the pond is surrounded by English foliage through the full 360°. There is a sense of isolation. I marvel at the tranquillity, and have the intense sense of being miles away from suburbia but equally and more intensely knowing that I’m actually within view of St Pauls Cathedral and central London.

The only distractions are my ear plugs which pop in and out and which I adjust obsessively; that and my heightened awareness of my male companions.

There are clues everywhere to the secondary life of this congregation. Phallic symbols abound. The jetty thrusts much further than necessary into the pond, the diving board reverberates with a deep hum whenever one of the blokes shows off his athletic skills; the swans stretch their long necks towards the sky and when I’m floating on my back I’m confronted by a hugh vapour trail following a silent jet as it streaks across the sky.

Somehow I can’t quiet relax. Its pleasant but its not exhilarating – swimming in dirty water, smelling like stale duck shit lacks some aesthetic dimension; similar to smoking a cigarette in a strong wind where the exhaled smoke is whipped away before you can enjoy the aesthetics of your nicotine addiction.

I swim across. I swim up. I adjust my earplugs and having satisfied myself that getting out will not mark me as a wuss defeated by the challenge, I breaststroke my way back to the ladder and pull my cold white body back into the cool summer London sun.

Back in the change room, Adonis is still attached to the wall enjoying the sun and waiting for something to happen. The Maharishi has disappeared. The sun has shifted and the shadows have reduced the area available for Monsieur Foucault who doggedly continues his quest for knowledge while reclining uncomfortably on his towel on this concrete floor.

My micro fibre towel looks and feels pathetically small as I dry off the pondy water. I modestly discard my trunks not wanting to inadvertently give any unintended signal that might see the Maharishi suddenly re-enter the scene or cause Adonis to skip a heart beat.

I think I’ve sussed the place out as I prepare to leave but then unexpectedly through the door arrive five Jewish boys in full regalia - traditional Hasidic Jews.

Their side burns drop in ringlets from beneath their black skull caps. They are dressed in conservative black trousers, white shirts and black vests. They speak to each often in what I presume is Yiddish and I wonder if they’ve entered this temple inadvertently. Should I tell them this is not a synagogue? Should I introduce them to Adonis? A Greek god and a possy of Hasidic Jews would surely have a great deal to discuss.

I wait and wait expecting some bizarre new event but they are in no hurry. Perhaps my Aussie presence in this local men’s club is inhibiting them. Has my bright blue micro towel given me away – or is it my baseball cap or tourist’s sandals.

Before I leave I take one last long slow look at the picture before me and capture it as if in a photo for sharing with Richard and my London dinner companions tonight.

The final element of my day lies at the exit where a large sign awaits me. On my way in I had failed to pause and take it in, wisely as this would have been a dead give away when I was intent on masquerading as a local.

Now I read with renewed interest the rules and regulations, risks and advice which Camden Council offers me.

What catches my eyes is the list of health risk I have just exposed myself to:
§ Hypothermia
§ Sudden Immersion Syndrome (SIS)
§ Mild gastroenteritis
§ Eye and ear and respiratory infections

Strangely there is no reference to the unwritten rules which I have largely failed to negotiate. Perhaps the final warning alludes to this and is a coded message. In large print and definitely not included under the health cluster, it reads –
Beware of breeding swans.


Luvvie said...


In the spirit of the story, I would like to say that it's not too long for me!! Absolutely bleeding marvellous. Keep it up! Oh dear. I just get worse don't I?

MostLusty said...

Hey there,

Thanks for the story. So lovely to read a story from a fellow swimmer however it does make my half arsed posting look seriously lacking. And no your posting is not too long at all.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up on this post! Love it!

The Hampstead Ladies Ponds are just as ... well just as, I'm sure being a man of the world you understand.

I have a girl friend who is always inviting me there but so far I have resisted the temptation. I work mostly in Golders Green, at the end of the road where my office is there is a synogue - so am now quite used to the long curls and long black coats. At first it was a little surreal - like stepping into a scene from Dickens.