FEATURES,  Opinion

A swimmer’s perspective on the City of London Corporation’s proposals for Hampstead Heath ponds

Nicola Mayhew, Co-chair of the Hampstead Heath Ladies’ Pond, gives her opinion on the City of London’s proposals to adopt ‘applied’ charging at the ponds from 2 May 2020.

The proposals would be applicable at the point of entry for the bathing ponds and Heath Rangers will oversee and ensure payment. Anyone who fails to pay would be excluded from the ponds.

By Nicola Mayhew, Co-Chair of the Hampstead Heath Ladies’ Pond

On London’s Hampstead Heath, just five miles from Oxford Circus, we are fortunate to have the world-famous Hampstead bathing ponds. Winter and summer, we can swim surrounded by nature, a welcome antidote to the pressures of city life. While I wouldn’t begrudge anyone the joy of ‘wild’ swimming, its growing popularity does have some downsides for those of us who’ve been quietly enjoying its pleasures for many years.

Once upon a time, there would be only a handful of hardy swimmers – ranging in age from teenagers to octogenarians – on an average winter morning. Today, outdoor swimming has become part of the zeitgeist. This year more than 300 women and girls turned up to join our traditional New Year’s Day swim at the Ladies’ Pond, and some weekends a swim feels a lot less peaceful than it once did.

Hot days in London have always attracted long queues of people to the ponds. Every summer our amazing lifeguards patiently assess and advise hundreds of new swimmers to make sure they are safe in our cold, deep and opaque waters.

Historically swimming on the Heath was free until 2005 when, following an unsuccessful attempt to close one of the three bathing ponds as a cost-cutting exercise, the City of London (which took over ownership and management of Hampstead Heath in 1989) decided to introduce charges. Many swimmers continued to uphold the right to swim free, so a ‘self-policed’ system of payment emerged. This created some ambiguity about whether or not to pay at all, a problem exacerbated by unclear signage and temperamental ticket machines.

The trouble now is that the City of London claims it is under pressure from the Health and Safety Executive to increase lifeguarding provision. They have used Health and Safety advice received following a fatality at the Highgate Men’s Bathing Pond in June 2019 to justify enforcing the charges and doubling the price. Some see this simply as cynical opportunism to exploit the popularity of wild swimming, but others warn that it may be the first step towards franchising out operation of the ponds for profit.

In January this year, the City launched a review of managing the ponds and a consultation with swimmers, suggesting publicly – but without clear evidence – that too few of us were paying the ‘honesty fee’ to make the ponds sustainable. Then, 10 days ago, the City announced that, from 2 May, they plan to employ people to enforce payment of massively increased charges (adult day tickets up 100% from £2 to £4, and concessions raised from £1 to £2.40). This has infuriated the swimming community, many feel the ‘consultation’ has been a sham designed to cover the City’s ambition to monetise the Heath.

The rights of people to roam free on Hampstead Heath are enshrined in law but, because the ponds have to be fenced and lifeguarded to meet Health and Safety requirements, the City can justify restricting access. Some swimmers still believe passionately that swimming should be free, while others say it’s reasonable to contribute to the running costs of the ponds as long as charges are fair. Where we are all united is in opposing enforcement of hugely increased charges and the exclusion of people who can’t afford to pay. We find ourselves engaged in a campaign to stop the City destroying the unique ethos and environment of our beloved ponds and pricing Londoners out of the benefits that swimming offers to their physical and mental wellbeing. Wild swimmers everywhere should be vigilant about preserving their freedom to swim.

To follow the Hampstead Heath swimmer’s campaign against City of London, visit:


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Picture (c) Sarah Saunders

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