Deep December, Monday morning after heavy snow on Sunday. It’s a couple of degrees above freezing but raining, with plenty of snow still on the ground. I run and slide down to the station, feeling and looking oddly dressed in running gear with a rain jacket and flat cap, but I need all these things. Exiting Highgate tube after trotting up the escalators I shush through the melting snow on the footpaths up into the village. The streets are quiet, probably due to some schools being closed, but there are also fewer cars on the streets, and those that are here are slowly swishing along the roads. Shuddering at the thoughts of riding the curves of West Hill in slippery conditions I am, unusually, glad to not be on the bike.
It was pitch black when I left home, and it only a little lighter now, well after the pond’s 7.30am opening time, later than usual due to this shortest time of year. Down Merton Lane and along Millfield Lane the eastern edge of the Heath comes into view, the white of the snow offering a little brightness but the dark black of the model boating pond reminding me what I’m here for.
Inside the changing compound there’s one grinning fellow swimmer who seems quite happy, most likely because he is no longer contemplating having to get into the water. The concrete floor is also grey and white snow, slush and ice, with a path for bare feet through to the jetty, itself white and uninviting. After a little too much pre-swim fiddling I find myself walking out making brave-ish small talk with the lifeguard. He keeps a closer eye than usual on those going by. The wind blows eddies and sharp little raindrops across the water, now looking green, blue and black all at once from up close. I fit my feet into the prints of someone else who stood on the side and dropped into the water, and do the same.
The water, never disappointing, delivers they goods, a sharp shock and it is a challenge to get quickly into the pattern of a winter swim. So: deep breaths, focus on breathing, swim under the other jetty, breast stroke to the edge, turn left, flip onto my back, 75 strokes backstroke. This takes you a lot of the way, then back onto my front and breast stroke the rest of it. A lap of sorts. My hands go numb immediately and feel like blocks of ice all the way round. At times water splashes into my eyes and I consider leaving them closed but then kick myself back into the moment. As there’s snow and ice around I let myself off having to make another dive in and head back to shower and change. Life comes back into my hands quickly. I find I can do my laces – by no means a given – and get clothes on, and before I know it am running off towards Kentish Town. The snow gets my shoes wet and cold. From the muddy brown slopes of Parliament Hill visible to the south it looks like hordes of sledges came this way yesterday though the Heath still looks marvellous in its silky white finery.
Coming this way brings the world back slowly, from dog walkers and parents escorting children to school, to the long stretch of no-one else on Highgate Road, then into the rush hour half-bustle of Kentish Town, where no-one has done what you’ve just done and once again you become one in a crowd, with just the inner thermostat purring away on overtime reminding you of the gently-fading feeling, and then the train south to the barely-noticed Thames and the rest of the day.