I used to be one of those people who are forever catching coughs, colds and sore throats. I spent small fortunes on pills, sprays and syrups from chemists and health food shops. I even went to see an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist about it, but the test results were inconclusive and all the options he suggested involved spending big bucks with no certainty of outcome.

I got so fed up about it that I decided to give cold water swimming a go in order to boost my immune system. Three years ago last September, I began visiting the Men’s Pond on Hampstead Heath two to three times a week in the mornings before work. As the weeks went by and the temperature dropped, I was convinced that I was on the verge of catching a major, bed-confining cold, especially as I was swimming in just trunks, cap, goggles and nose clip.

But I didn’t, even when December came around and the water temperature fell to 1C. Admittedly, I only stayed in the water for a minute or so when it was that chilly. But the threatened supercold never arrived and I was able to keep dipping into the pond’s murky yet invigorating waters throughout January, February and March. Never before had I been so glad to greet the spring.

Now I won’t say I never get colds or sore throats, but I do so far less often than before – although that’s probably partly because I’m too busy going to the Heath to swim in chlorinated pools. And when I do catch the sniffles after a swim, it’s usually because I have had a break of a week or more and lost some of my resistance to the cold.

Improved immunity, however, is just one of the benefits I have experienced from subjecting myself to water temperatures that most other people would run from.

For a start, visiting an open-air bathing spot on a regular basis brings me into closer contact with nature and with the seasons. It’s so easy in a city like London to see the year as a brief summer bookended by winter and with an even briefer spring and autumn in-between. But the trees and vegetation surrounding the Men’s Pond, the birds that live there and the varying quality of the light in the mornings help me notice all the different stages within each season. I feel much more connected to the natural world and less despondent about spending the rest of my day in a concrete and glass box.

Then there is the incredible feeling you get when you emerge from seriously parky water – especially on a clear, crisp day when the sun hangs low and douses the pond in golden light. For about a minute after you clamber out of the icy depths, your body glows bright red and you feel invincible.

I’ve also found bathing in cold water very helpful in dealing with depression and grief. I first started swimming regularly at the Heath in the autumn after my partner Gus died. There’s nothing like plunging into freezing water on a cold winter’s day for bringing you into the present moment and helping you appreciate the beauty of the “now”. Every time I came out of the water and stood on the deck that winter felt like a small victory over bereavement and depression.

I don’t think it’s an accident that I began cold water swimming while I was studying shiatsu. Shiatsu-do, or the way of shiatsu, is about taking control of your own well-being through diet, exercise and lifestyle choices and generally being more aware of your own body and its needs. A shiatsu treatment itself is just one part of that picture. Bathing in the Men’s Pond in winter seems a radical step but it has given me a strong sense of control over my health and I no longer rely on endless trips to the chemist or expensive medical advice to stay well.

If you are thinking of taking up cold water swimming yourself (there is a Ladies’ Pond on the Heath for any women considering giving it a try), I would recommend starting early in the autumn so your body can acclimatise to the declining temperatures. And wear a nose clip: a rush of cold water to the brain is not a nice way to start the day. A wetsuit, however, is cheating.

Currently, the ponds are under threat from a proposed dam project aimed at preventing flooding to the local area. The Men’s Pond bathers are fighting to stop the project going ahead, as are the users of the Ladies’ and Mixed Ponds. Let’s hope they succeed.

For more pictures from the Men’s Pond, check out the very fine Cold Pond Water blog.

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