06 June 2012

♫...Come and take a swim with me...♫

During our recent spurt of summer, having spent 3 days splayed helplessly on the sofa, I decided I wanted to go for a swim in the open air to cool down a bit. Being probably the only lesbian in London to have never been for a swim in the ladies' pond on Hampstead Heath I decided that it would be the perfect place to cool off.

Obviously my next step was too Google "Kenwood ladies' pond disabled access". I got nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada. The best result was a list of all the pools in Camden: It had details of the pond on the same page as the details for Holborn Oasis and the Oasis blurb mentioned the access at that pool.

So I was still none the wiser about access at Kenwood. Next I did a Google image search for the pond to see if I could see what the access was like. I could see it had a deck with ladders into/out of the water. I can't do ladders. I could see I'd be able to get in OK - you've got gravity on your side - but I didn't really fancy my chances of getting out again; the freeboard was just too great.

Still being hot and still wanting to cool down I decided to just go there and have a look at what the access was: Maybe the freeboard wasn't as big as it looked in the pictures and I could manage? What if the ladder was at an angle so I could shuffle up the steps rather than an unmanageable vertical ladder?

After looking at this map I decided the most sensible place to park my car would be on Millfield Lane in Highgate.

Foolishly I assumed there would be maps of the heath on signs around the place that I could use to then find the way from the car to the pond. Yes, I know I've lived in north London for 9 years, but I don't know the heath like the back of my hand. I never go there. Manual wheelchairs and steep hills aren't a fun combination. But I do drive past the heath all the time so I've noticed the signs at all the entrances and assumed most of them had maps on them. I assumed wrong.

"Never mind," I thought. "Google 'Hampstead Heath map' on your phone."

No signal up there. I'd recommend people go up there with the map pre-loaded on their phone for reference. If you're on Orange anyway.

So I went wandering. Despite the abysmal gravel paths and hills so step I genuinely didn't know if I could make it to the top: I actually enjoyed myself. It was beautiful wandering around in all the sunshine.

I did eventually find the ladies' pond after 2 hours of meandering. At 8:15pm. It closed at 8:30. By the time I'd pushed the last few metres over horrific paving and gotten changed I would've literally had no more than 60 seconds in the water. But instead of just going back to my car I did go all the way to the pond to scope out access for future reference so it wasn't a completely wasted journey.

Having spent about an hour scrutinising photos to try and work out whether or not I could manage to get out of the water I couldn't believe the first thing I saw when I rounded the corner to see the deck: A hoist.

picture of a flatbed hoist on the deck in front of the water. Just to the left is the lifeguard tower.

Making things physically accessible is massively important. But something can never be truly accessible unless you provide information about access. I'd wager most disabled women have never considered going for a dip there because there's no access information published on the web so they assumed there were no adjustments.

That's why I'm writing this post. Not because it's an interesting topic that I think will engage readers, nor because I'm seeking catharsis through writing out the thoughts in my head. This post is simply about information for the next woman who Googles "Kenwood ladies' pond disabled access".

Of course, access isn't just about getting into and out of the water. You have to start with getting to the pond. As you can see on this map, there's only one path you can take to get to the ladies' pond (14). Whether you're coming from the north or south you have to take the path I've painted pink:

a section of a map of Hampstead Heath showing the ladies' pond, with the path to the pond highlighted in bright pink. The pond itself is labelled '14' hence my reference to the number 14 in the last paragraph.

The quality of the paving is truly abysmal:

lumpy uneven paving that wheelchair wheels are prone to catching on and making you land on your chin #1

lumpy uneven paving that wheelchair wheels are prone to catching on and making you land on your chin #2

They're just two rather arbitrary shots taken along the path. I kept getting people coming up behind me asking if I needed help. The terrain is so uneven that you couldn't accept help if you wanted to because within seconds your front wheels would catch on something sticking up, the person would continue pushing forwards, and you would get tipped out of your chair and onto the floor; chin first. You just have to make your own way very slowly and carefully.

Should you make it to the pond without ending up in an ambulance the access improves greatly. As you can see in the photo of the hoist: The area around the pond itself is concrete which is perfectly easy to push across. There's an accessible toilet, but unfortunately there's nothing to sit on in there to get changed. There is seating outside for getting changed, but I would imagine that for people needing to remove catheter bags and so on while getting changed that that then poses the problem that there's also no toilet by the seating!

I went back the day after my exploratory mission and this time actually got to swim. Being an unheated pond it's not suitable for people whose conditions are exacerbated by coldness. You can check the water temperature before you leave the house on the City of London website. It was a boiling hot day and people with osteogenesis imperfecta are prone to overheating. So for me getting into a pond that was 18°C was lovely.

There's no water shallow enough to stand in so don't do what I foolishly did and wait until you're in the water before putting your hat and goggles on. I ended up jumping back onto the hoist seat for a sec to free up my hands for putting them on.

Something else I didn't consider with not being an open water swimmer was goggle fog. In a pool modern goggles don't fog too badly. But in a pond there's a difference of about 20°C between the temperature of your face and the temperature of the water. Not having any anti-fog stuff meant that I had to stop every few strokes to de-mist because I couldn't see where I was going. Lesson learned for next time.

Goggle fog did give me the impression that it's not an overly accessible experience for people with visual impairments. Leaves and other pondy scum stuff loiters around the edge so you want to avoid that. You need to dodge buoys and at one point I had to give way to a couple of ducks. I can imagine that finding yourself fighting with an angry duck you didn't see coming isn't fun. Obviously being a pond rather than a pool there are no high contrast markings on the bottom to guide. Apparently they do sometimes have a lane rope out that you can swim along, but the banks of the pond don't look that easy for a tapper to stand on. And as I said before: You probably don't want to be getting too close to the edge unless you want to be picking pond weeds out of your ears.

Being a pond rather than a pool; the water is full of stuff. You find yourself swimming with ducks and fish, which means that also in there is duck poop and fish poop. While you're treading water to de-fog your goggles you'll get weedy things wrapped around your ankle. So it's quite remarkable that upon getting out of the water you feel cleaner than you do when you get out of a swimming pool. And it's not just a matter of perception: Cleansing my face and then looking at the cotton wool I noticed that less dirt came away than when cleansing my face after a swim in a chlorinated pool.

As someone that reacts badly to chlorine being able to swim in a body of water that isn't full of bleach was a real plus. I can swim in a pool once a week at most or the chlorine is just too much for my knackered sinuses. It was lovely to be able to swim without having to suffer streaming eyes and nose afterwards.

Given how not gross I felt I decided to wait until I got home before having a shower rather than having to fuss with figuring out a plan for how to manage potentially inaccessible showers. Apparently they have both indoor and outdoor showers but there's a step up to the indoor ones. I didn't find out whether or not they have a shower chair to sit on to use the outdoor showers: Obviously you can't sit in your wheelchair in the shower.

Will I go back again? Almost certainly. Obviously I'm not batshit enough to be swimming in there in January (it's open 365 days a year) but it was an enjoyable way to cool down on a hot day. I just hope the Corporation of London tarmac that bloody path before I get tipped out of my wheelchair, land on my chin and break my face.