Though The DDR officially ceased to exist in 1990 The East German flag is still proudly on display in and around Highgate Men’s Pond. Warum?
It’s a symbol of resurrection, of a return from the dead.
On 18th December 2009 Hampstead resident Tom Kearney was standing on the pavement at the edge of a pedestrian crossing on Oxford Street when he was hit by a Bendy Bus. The impact cracked his skull, burst both his lungs and threw him 20 feet down Europe’s busiest shopping street. When paramedics arrived, they could find no pulse.
Doctors at the Royal London Hospital fought to save Tom’s life; prevented his lungs from dying and drilled a hole in his skull to stop his brain from exploding under the pressure of bleeding. But that was only half the battle. When Tom woke from a coma in mid-January 2010 he had to re-learn how to speak, walk, eat and drink again. He remained in hospital for months.
Then, while slowly recovering at his home in Hampstead, his neighbor, writer Al Alvarez, gave him a piece of life-changing advice.
A lifelong Hampstonian, Alvarez has been swimming in the Heath Ponds daily since he was a teenager before The War. He told Tom to
“Get in the Ponds. If a Bendy Bus can’t kill you, the Ponds certainly won’t. Besides, I think It will make you better.”
Taking Al’s advice, Tom began swimming regularly at Highgate Men’s Pond in September 2011. Al was right, the cool fresh water aided his recovery. Tom’s enthusiasm meant that soon friends, acquaintances, and friends-of-friends started joining his weekend swims, the number rising week-by-week even as the water temperature dropped.
And so the East German Ladies Swimming Team was born: a bunch of middle-aged dads for the most part, who brave the ponds in whatever the weather, the colder the better.
Why the name? An early photograph of the group received a scathing response from a spouse. Instead of praising the fortitude of her man and his friends, she compared them to the 1976 East German Ladies Swimming Team, large in physique, full of testosterone and the vanquisher of all opponents at the Montreal Olympics
Now numbering some 40 members, EGLST meet every Saturday and Sunday (and when possible during the week) at the top of Parliament Hill, before a short run (or stroll) round The Heath, finishing at the Highgate Men’s Pond for a swim – rain or shine, ice or snow.
To swim in the ponds is to immerse yourself in London’s social and cultural fabric. The Highgate Ponds were dug in the 17th and 18th centuries. The clay taken from them was used in the bricks of houses for miles around. Thereafter the quarries were flooded to become reservoirs for the area’s growing population. Now of course they are a construction site again – though hopefully this is only a temporary state of affairs…
They have been immortalized in paintings by Constable and a poem by William Blake. The Men’s Pond is on a spot where the poet John Keats is supposed to have listened to nightingales and chatted to Samuel Coleridge. It opened in 1893, and remains a place where it doesn’t matter what your job, your title or your religion, as long as you share the love of an open-water swim.
The EGLST includes young and old from all walks of life. Though we all live in the area, members hail from five different continents. But we are united under one flag we wear with pride on our own-branded swimming caps, trunks and beanies.
So if you are passing by The Men’s Pond and happen to see a flotilla of white-capped heads emblazoned with the East German flag (and the motto ‘moob rule since 2011) remember, it’s not some kind a political statement, a yearning for the bad old days of Erich Honecker and the Berlin Wall. No, it’s worn with a big ironic grin in full acknowledgement that it took Tom being hit by a bus and returning from the dead for him and all of us to discover this way of feeling fully alive. Nobody leaves the pond in the same mood they entered it – everyone emerges revivified and smiling.
That’s why each year on December 18th we celebrate ‘Bus Day’ and toast another year lived to the full thanks to the Ponds, and Al Alvarez.
Al Alvarez’s excellent book Pondlife – A Swimmer’s Journalis available at Daunt Books, Waterstones and any other bookshop worth it’s salt and not just selling pulp-porn masquerading as something worth reading.
Tom Kearney has campaigned tirelessly since 2012 for TfL to improve its Bus Safety Reporting and Monitoring and for Oxford Street to be pedestrianized.
As a result of his work, TfL has, since 2014, published statistics of casualties involving TfL buses (29 pedestrians a month were hit by by buses in 2015).
Earlier this year TfL launched ‘a world-leading bus safety programme’ based on many of Tom’s recommendations. All of the major candidates for Mayor of London have pledged to pedestrianize Oxford Street.