Tacked up on a simple door in the deeps of Hampstead Heath, the sign reads: “Everyone should believe in something. I believe I’ll go swimming.” Just like the documentary we find it in, this speaks to the defiantly eccentric spirit of Britain, its depth and character. In The Ponds, we at last have a tribute to one of the remaining bastions of un-modernisable London. These are ponds after all; they laugh at the notion of sanitisation. It’s a film to uplift anyone who has braved these waters, and to inspire the rest to seek out their nearest lake, river, or cove. It matters little that it was first released – in lidos and community centres, naturally – in the freer, happier climes of 2019. Being “exercise”, swimming persisted blithely through the pandemic, just as it has through everything the last few hundred years has thrown at us. “Divorce, death, illness, job issues…” says a swimmer at the secluded Women’s Pond. “And we’ve solved those going round this pond.”
Because of the pandemic, in fact, wild swimming has had a renaissance, one which would no doubt have delighted and bemused one of its champions, the late nature writer Roger Deakin, author of the great Waterlog. But the likes of Chris, one of the lifesaving Highgate Lifebouys, has been swimming there since he was 10 (62 years). Many here relate how much they depend on it, swimming every morning. “It makes the day a different day, which would otherwise be slightly feeble, frankly.” The same goes for the people. Two swimmers with degenerative diseases are palpably invigorated, rejuvenated by it. Particularly in winter. “I feel the ducks start looking at you with more respect at this time of year”.
Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian found “this gentle and forthright film is a kind of home movie, almost a series of hyperlocal video-diary entries, full of uncomplicated happiness in a way that most documentaries aren’t.” And he agrees with the Canadian-sounding cofounder of the (all-male) East German Ladies Swimming Team, who describes the experience as “living water. I’m not religious at all, and this is the closest place I have to a sanctuary. Cold water is the most unbelievable, existential, sense of being there. If you wanna be there, get in the water!”
First shown December 2021.