Death on the ponds

Perfect harmony: a Sussie Ahlburg portrait of the Britten Sinfonia
Perfect harmony: a Sussie Ahlburg portrait of the Britten Sinfonia

On Sunday, Sussie Ahlburg, a Swedish-born 50-year-old photographer, went to Hampstead Heath, to swim in the Ladies’ Pond. It was a pleasant summer day. Along with the regular bathers, there would also have been the fairweather ones who come to lie in the meadow and swim gently while chatting with friends. It’s a place of legends. Stories of Margaret Rutherford doing the side-stroke and Katharine Hepburn showing a young girl how to be fearless on the old diving boards do the rounds.

But Sunday was an unusual day too. Ahlburg didn’t arrive back at her home in Holborn that evening. At 9.20pm, the police logged a call for a missing person, a search began around the heath and the police’s specialist marine unit went to the pond. Just after lunchtime on Monday, her body was recovered.

Ahlburg’s husband Andy Keate has paid tribute to his “fantastic but modest” wife. He told the Camden New Journal: “We miss her already. My children are too young to lose a parent. She was a fantastic mother, she loved our children so much and they love her. She was a wonderful woman but she was also modest and very humble with it. We’re still coming to terms with it and trying to make sense of everything.”

Ahlburg’s was the first death at the pond since it has been tended to formally by lifeguards since 1976, and one that has left the Hampstead idyll temporarily broken.

The Ladies’ Pond is run by the City of London, but it is far from a typical municipal pool. Previously on the private Kenwood Estate, it opened to the public in 1926, with a Times announcement that “the nymphs of north London” now had somewhere to swim. Since then, though open, it has been almost like a secret, an experience handed down from mother to daughter, or by friends, and kept alive even in winter by the cadre of all-weather bathers. The men’s pond is elevated on a hillock; the women’s is in a dell of oak and fir trees, in a corner of the heath. You could stumble upon it as Actaeon did Diana.

It is women’s territory. Peeping toms are told to buzz off, and since 1976 topless bathing has been allowed. There’s a committee of regulars who look after the admin but the day-to-day custodians of its sanctity have been the lifeguards, a young regular team who look after the ponds and know the ladies well.

“They can identify the regulars by their strokes in the water,” says Caitlin Davies, who has written a book called Taking the Waters on the history of swimming on the heath, with photography by Ruth Corney, another regular bather. Watching the pond is a specialised job. There are reeds and shade to contend with, so there are two women on duty each day, who also look after bathers in a different way.

“The real psychologists are the lifeguards,” says Davies. Among those she interviewed for the book was Pat Latchford, who watched over the waters in the Sixties. “Women come to the pond to get away, not from something specific. People go there to get through things. It’s quiet and secluded — you wouldn’t think you were a few miles from central London — and they talk to the lifeguards and tell them their problems.”

Every bather I’ve spoken to has mentioned the vigilance of the lifeguards, which is why Ahlburg’s death is such a mystery. It was a weekend in the summer, when the ponds will have been relatively busy. One fellow swimmer, who did not want to be named, told a newspaper: “She had a heart condition. Her partner is devastated and we are all very upset. In no way can the lifeguards be blamed, they are fantastic here.”

Ahlburg was a bather. She was also a photographer of acclaim. One of her strands was portraiture of musicians. They were more than programme stills. They were unusual, and she gave a visual distinction to young violinists such as Alina Ibragimova and Vilde Frang.

David Butcher, the chief executive of the Britten Sinfonia, which prides itself on being a cutting-edge ensemble in classical music, remembers why they asked Ahlburg to capture them.

“An orchestra can look generically rather boring. It takes a real artist to see it in a new way, and she was brilliant at capturing the individuality of our players. She did a particular shoot at a pumping station which we used as our main picture. Her partner was a music agent whom we knew well, so she came to a number of concerts. She didn’t just turn up on the day. She was musical and inspired by the music.”

Ian Bostridge, the tenor whom she had photographed alongside the Covent Garden’s musical director, Antonio Pappano, also remembers her talent. “Sussie was a wonderful artist and a true professional. Whatever the circumstances she got the best out of her subjects through a combination of charm and nous.”

Ahlburg appreciated the power of the visual. Isabelle Busnel, a jewellery- maker who had asked her to photograph her work (Ahlburg also photographed glass and ceramics and published a book, Photograph Your Own Art and Craft in 2011), was so struck by the photographer that she wrote about Ahlburg’s story. “When she was seven years old a doctor discovered she was severely short-sighted and prescribed her some glasses. This was a revelation for her: she had spent the first seven years of her life thinking the world was blurry and suddenly she discovered what it meant to see the world clearly. She asked her parents to buy her a camera and her passion for images started at that moment in her life. This first camera was quite frustrating as she couldn’t obtain the effects she wanted but she started to look at things differently and take notice of surfaces, patterns and new shapes.”

Ahlburg, who had grown up in Sweden, moved to London to study photography at Central St Martins, and married fellow photographer Keate. They had a son and a daughter, both now in their twenties.

The final Ahlburg portrait, though, was not by her but of her, on a sign tied to a wicket fence outside the ponds, an appeal for information for the police. “Sussie is five feet 10 inches tall, slim, greying hair, long legs, wearing a white Speedo swimming hat, blue/transparent prescription swimming goggles, dark navy/black tankini,” it read. “She would have travelled to the pond using her folding black Brompton bicycle.” Also tied to the gates were bunches of flowers in commemoration, many of which looked wild, picked from the heath.

The pond has been closed since Monday as police continue their investigation into the death, which so far has been recorded as unexplained while they await the post-mortem results. Three women stood outside, along with a policeman, as much considering the sombre situation as guarding the reputation of the pond as a giver of vitality.

Many have appreciated it for that. Barbara Zitwer, an American literary agent, was inspired to write The JM Barrie Ladies Swimming Society after visiting the pond on hearing that her mother had died. “A friend took me to the pond, where I found a piece of Shangri-la and paradise. That day, which was so sad for me, I was nurtured by the pond and the elderly women I met there who were swimming.” Others, young and old, will continue in her wake. For now, though, the waters in the Ladies’ Pond are still.