Robin Ashenden

Men don’t belong in Hampstead Ladies’ Pond

The 'Women Only' sign at Hampstead Ladies' Pond (Credit: Getty images)

The waters of Hampstead ladies’ pond are this week, it seems, more troubled than ever. Last Sunday, amidst cries of ‘traitor’ and ‘shame on you’, the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association (KLPA) voted against barring transwomen from using it. As a result, this unique bathing site, billed as providing ‘a place of refuge and security for women and girls of all ages,’ would now appear to be suffering from terminal mission creep.

This row was triggered by a controversial official decision in 2019 to allow transwomen to swim at the pond. Many regulars were furious and some gender-critical activists like Venice Allen and Maya Forstater vowed to return it to its women-only status.

Something of priceless, almost mystical value to its users – the country’s only all-women bathing site – has been lost

Venice Allen, attending this weekend’s meeting, was coruscating. Accusing the KLPA of creating a ‘fantasy porn set’ for ‘perverted men’ and ‘their erections’, she warned: ‘When the inevitable happens, as a result of your trans inclusive policy, that the majority of women, and, so I’m told, two men, have voted for today, and one of these men, that you’re so inclusive of, attack or rape a woman or girl, I want you to remember that you voted for that.’

It has been a long and fraught journey to this point. The first rumblings came in September 2017 when the writer A.N.Wilson in a newspaper column quoted a lady-friend who was a regular at the ladies’ pond. This friend had, he said, described a swimmer there as ‘obviously in a stage of transition from man to woman… simply a hairy man wearing lipstick’. Wilson commented: ‘However uncomfortable this makes the women feel, they know that they cannot say anything.’

At the end of that year it became open policy. The City of London Corporation, which owns and manages Hampstead ponds, would, they announced, henceforth be allowing transwomen into the women’s site. Margaret Roberts, a swimmer who’d been using the pool for more than three decades, voiced a common concern: ‘I and many others are threatened by having to have “cross dressers” openly use our private space… Women have few private spaces and we have had to fight many times to keep the pond open.’ But the KLPA doubled down. They were, they said, ‘committed to ensuring safe and respectful swimming at the ladies’ pond and a social environment in which everyone can expect to be treated with respect, courtesy and consideration.’  

Yet this cluster of abstract nouns, however fine-sounding, wasn’t enough to reassure many of the pond’s users. In February 2018 – the year of Theresa May’s fabled Gender Recognition Act consultation – a closed meeting of the KLPA was picketed by a group called Mayday 4 Women. The demonstrators wished, they said, ‘to keep the Hampstead Heath ladies’ pond a sanctuary for women… Males already have access to two ponds: the men’s pond and the mixed pond. Why should they have access to three ponds when they already have access to two?’

The following month, things took a comical turn. Two topless women wearing false beards entered a male-only session at Dulwich leisure centre’s swimming pool. One of them, Ami Desir, explained: ‘We are doing it to highlight the ridiculous and dangerous move towards self-identification. We are clearly not men but by saying we are, we were allowed to join in men-only sessions.’ In May that year, Desir and several others entered the changing rooms at Hampstead men’s pond and began to undress, to drive home their point.

‘The women’s pond is a space for women,’ Desir explained. ‘It is where women swim with their daughters in an environment without men. And they should expect to be bathing topless and not be confronted by someone with a penis in that space… Changing the unique character of the women’s pond is a mistake. People are taking advantage of it and it is making women afraid.’

Their efforts had little effect. In May 2019, the right of transgender women to use Hampstead Heath ponds was rubber-stamped. The City of London Corporation (CLC) announced that it had formally adopted a new gender identity policy to make sure services in the area ‘are fully compliant with the Equality Act 2010 , and do not discriminate against trans people’.

In a BBC report, Edward Lord, chair of the establishment committee of the CLC attempted to bring the discussion to a close: ‘It shouldn’t be controversial. It shouldn’t be a debate. Trans women are women, trans men are men… It’s important that we recognise and give respect to all people.’ Many however continued to feel that it was controversial, that there should be a debate, and to wonder why a man like Lord – or indeed any man – was holding forth on the issue at all.

For some sense of why gender-critical activists like Desir and Allen were so committed to the fight, the 2019 book At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond tells you everything. An anthology of essays from writers such as Margaret Drabble and Esther Freud, it celebrated the ladies’ pond and what it had meant to its users over the years. The pond, said Freud, gave her ‘the unusual sense that I was exquisitely lucky to be female,’ adding ‘­­when you rise up out of the velvety water you feel so powerfully beautiful that it’s possible to forget to look into a mirror for the rest of the day’. Writer Lou Stoppard said the pond recognised ‘the discrimination many women face in life’ and that it could ‘support you through crises. It helped me with the death of my parents. And with [the] menopause, all the mood changes’. Nina Mingya Powles, who moved flat to be near the pond, wrote of the moment you passed the sign reading ‘Men not allowed beyond this point’, calling the pond ‘a sacred part of many women’s lives’.

‘The atmosphere,’ adds Sharlene Teo, ‘is one of tranquil matrilineal kinship; there’s no frisson of casually charged watchfulness or the sexually competitive energy that you’d get in a mixed environment…. I understand now why there’s a cult of sisterhood around the pond.’

Sunday’s vote at the KLPA may simply have confirmed a situation now five years in existence, but it was a bleak day nonetheless. The fact is, something of priceless, almost mystical value to its users – the country’s only all-women bathing site – has been lost, very possibly forever. Hampstead ladies’ pond has become that most dreary and common of modern phenomena: the public entity that no longer does the very job it was created to do. 

For ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’, there are no secret gardens, no sanctuaries or sacred spaces, nothing of beauty to be handed onto the next generation untarnished and preserved. At Hampstead ladies’ pond, as with so many other organisations in our time – from museums to libraries to academic curricula and the National Trust – someone, to put it crudely, has properly pissed in the pool.

Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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