Photo by Tommaso Fornoni
Artillery Row

Just add water

The Hampstead Heath ponds offer a recipe for the perfect summer afternoon

The swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath are one of London’s treasures. With 2021 offering up a last scattered handful of hot afternoons before what looks to be a grim winter, what better way to see off the summer that scarcely was?

Writing about it, however, poses something of a professional challenge. There have been an awful lot of pieces about what is sometimes called “wild swimming”. Or rather, as one despairing journalist noted, there has basically been one piece, written over and over again:

You were apprehensive at first; the water is cold; you’re now both closer to nature and, somehow, your own soul; you’ve googled some mental health stats; we know, we know.

I joked about writing said piece after a recent visit to the ponds. Alas, that joke led to this commission. If the resulting copy thus feels defensively meta in places, the reader is forewarned.

You will, at least, find no paean to cold-water swimming here. Whilst there have been one or two occasions where I have punched through the pain barrier a glacial lake in Switzerland, Parliament Hill Lido’s aluminium-lined cryogenic pod of a pool for the most part it is simply a deeply immiserating experience.

On a recent visit to Northern Ireland, for instance, I chanced a dip in the iron-grey seas of Portstewart Strand and swiftly was forced into a tooth-chattering retreat, my arms as blue as the bruise on my ego. Wim Hof and his wet-suited acolytes are welcome to wintry waters.

As a warm-weather activity, though, freshwater swimming takes some beating. 

Bathers would be more relaxed about a price increase nobody actually paid

Each of the three Hampstead Heath ponds has its own character: the ladies’ a secluded grotto set back from prying male eyes; the mixed a sort of party lagoon; the men’s a broad lake, open to spectators on two sides. The lattermost is also the only one to sport a proper diving board, and must surely therefore be a gentleman’s first choice when not in mixed company. (It used to be home to a much more spectacular diving tower, and the famous Highgate Diving Club. Only the concrete base of this now remains, and you’re not even allowed to jump off that.)

Once you’ve made your choice, the actual experience is supremely civilised. You stroll up over the Heath, past the summer flock of peacocking sunbathers, down through the shady trees that shield the changing area, and beyond the ticket inspector.

This last is a recent and not-uncontroversial addition, the City of London Corporation (which oversees the Heath) having taken advantage of the Government locking everyone in their houses for months to impose both a hike in the cost of bathing and, more radically, an employee to check you’ve paid it. 

Traditionally, bathers walked past the unguarded sign advertising the £2 entry fee without paying it much mind. No less than the co-chairman of the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association told the Times, on the record, that: “It isn’t so much the increase in the charge, it’s the enforcement of it that goes totally contrary to the spirit of the Heath.”

One can see why bathers would be much more relaxed about a price increase nobody actually paid. But given that the number of visitors more than doubled over the past ten years and the work-from-home revolution gives millions more the chance to steal away for a mid-afternoon dip making us pay for sufficient lifeguards seems defensible.

Fresh water smells (as it tastes) only of itself

Now you’re through to the changing area, then the nude sunbathers who now apparently have the run of it since their special fenced-off area has been scrapped and, at last, you’re at the water. Unless you’ve picked one of the few genuinely scorching days of any British summer, when the green water is balmy and cool, it will probably be cold at first, although not terribly so. Power through it: on a warm day the discomfort fades quickly enough, and then you’re free to enjoy a swimming experience unlike any other.

Yes, there is a degree of getting “closer to nature”: exotic parakeets in the trees, imperious seagulls on the life-rings, complacent coots around the jetty. But there are other advantages too. If you’re minded to put in some distance, I find it psychologically much easier to do three circuits of the pond than forty lengths of an ordinary swimming pool. And then there’s the diving board.

It is also (perhaps counter-intuitively, given all the mud) extremely clean. None of the chemical tang of a dip in chlorine, nor the sinus-scouring harshness of salt. Instead, you emerge bearing only the gentle scent of fresh water, which smells (as it tastes, in other contexts) only of itself.

Then you’re out. Lingering in the changing area after towelling off is less appealing in the new order more nudists, and the strong impression that the No Smoking signs might, like the price list, be actually enforced now.

But finding a decent spot on the Heath for a read or a nap is essential to the true ponds experience. And you will carry something of the water with you when you go, at least until the noise and crowds of London scour it off.

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