I’m just back from watching “The Ponds”, a film by Patrick McLennan and Samuel Smith that documents a year in the three swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath. This was a private viewing put on at the Odeon, Wimbledon. I suspect the majority of people in the audience were swimmers themselves, judging by the complicit laughter at swimming in-jokes, and had heard about it through word of mouth. Some of them probably knew a few of the characters in the film. I did.
There’s no narration in The Ponds. The story is told piecemeal by the people who swim there. There’s no plot or overarching argument leading to any conclusion. Instead, you’re left with a wonderful sense of space and community, and gratitude that such a place exists. It’s a place (well, three places) where people with wildly disparate lives meet, share the life-affirming experience of swimming outdoors, swap stories and consequently form unique bonds and friendships. It’s those stories as much as the insights into year-round outdoor swimming that make The Ponds a joy to watch.
The Ponds is a celebration of life and how swimming can make it even better. A couple of the characters have recovered from near-death experiences. Others are battling with degenerative diseases, undergoing treatment for cancer or trying to come to terms with the loss of someone they loved. Some just swim for the sheer craziness of stripping off and plunging into cold water. And the message is always the same: swimming makes you feel better.
Throughout, The Ponds is touched by moments of gentle and sometimes dark humour. One swimmer announces, as he launches himself into the Men’s Pond in the middle of winter: “If I don’t come back, tell my family I had a good swim.” Another asserts, in all seriousness, that “the ducks look at you with more respect in the winter.” Then there was the woman who had breast reconstruction surgery after a double mastectomy who confused her doctors by asking if it was OK to expose her implants to cold water, and was back swimming, in winter, three months after her operation.
Find out more, including a list of screenings, at https://www.thepondsfilm.com/about