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The Ponds by Patrick McLennan & Samuel Smith - coming at Art House Crouch End

Thursday 7 November 2019, by Benjamin Hollis

“The Ponds” meets the Londoners whose lives have been changed by outdoor swimming

Visit Hampstead Heath in North London at the summer’s peak and you’ll see hundreds of sun-seeking locals swimming in the park’s ponds. Although that quintessential image will be familiar to many Londoners, few know that the ponds continue to draw regulars throughout the winter.

“The Ponds” is a yearlong study of the motley crew that religiously swims in the Hampstead Heath ponds every day, come rain, shine or even ice. The film explores the rich tapestry of individuals who share this particular obsession, all of them with a different story to tell.

One thing have in common is a reliance on the ponds as a mental health stalwart, helping them deal with depression, anxiety and even grief. Increasingly, Londoners including myself are being drawn to the idea of outdoor swimming for this very reason.

A keen outdoor swimmer himself, Co-Director Patrick Mclennan discussed the topic with us and gave us some tips on how to get involved.

What drew you to the Hampstead Heath ponds as the subject for your film?

The Ponds was conceived while I was having a swim at the Parliament Hill Lido. Myself and co-producer Samuel Smith were working on another project that was a little too ambitious, so we decided to find another, more straightforward story. The idea of capturing life over 12 months at these unusual urban swimming ponds was a simple but striking idea. I was surprised it hadn’t already been done.
I’m a keen outdoor swimmer and that was another wonderful thing about the project. I was creating a story out of a personal passion. It rarely felt like work; well, at least not while we were filming.

Did anything surprise you during filming?

A lot surprised me about it to be honest. Mainly how willing the swimmers were to tell their stories. The cold water is like a truth serum. People can’t help but be honest after they’ve had a swim in freezing water.

Every swimmer seems to have a story, is there one that struck you in particular?

Everyone has a unique relationship with the ponds and with outdoor swimming, so they all have stories to tell. But I think if I had to narrow it down to one person it would be Carrie, the lady we met when she was having just her second swim after a double mastectomy and reconstruction. What she had been through was awful, but the pond was crucial to her survival and she articulated it so well.

Patrick McLennan

There’s been increased research into cold water swimming’s capacity to reduce mental health problems. Does this come as a surprise to you?

I know researchers like Dr Mark Harper, of Brighton and Sussex University Hospital, are trying to fund research into it, but I think most of the evidence is still anecdotal.
But it’s obvious how it helps people with anxiety, depression, addictions and pretty much every condition. For me it has the power to transform my mood in the space of a couple of minutes. When it’s really cold you can be a bit grumpy when you get in, but soon emerge smiling.

The science remains unproven as to what it is exactly about swimming in cold water that helps people. Do you have your own ideas?

The freezing sensation, which feels a bit like burning when it’s really cold, and which you get used to surprisingly quickly, soon becomes a kind of tingling feeling. When you get out of cold water (and by that I mean 8°C and below) you may be shivering, but you have this wonderful tingling sensation and your body feels like it’s glowing. People with arthritis tell me the cold water numbs their pain and gives them respite from their condition. From a psychological point of view, cold water focuses the mind and body like nothing else. You’re not thinking of your problems when you’re swimming; you’re just concentrating on how you’re feeling in the water, so it can break the depressive cycle, for example.

Who would you recommend swimming in the ponds to?

Everyone! And if you live outside London, there are loads of outdoor swimming groups right around the UK and Ireland. Head to the Outdoor Swimming Society website to find like-minded people.

What’s an easy way for people to start a cold-water swimming habit?

It’s probably easiest to start swimming in the summer and swim at least twice a week as the temperature drops. But I don’t think there’s any right or wrong time to start outdoor swimming. I know people who’ve started in the depths of January. Just be sure to follow the expert advice on the Outdoor Swimming Society website.

The Ponds is screening at the Art House Crouch End in late December (check cinema listings for details) and is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray via The Ponds website.

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