A Swim on the Wild Side: The ponds in Hampstead Heath

The men's bathing pond Hampstead Heath

Relaxing swims in rivers and ponds are all the rage right now. A vigorous society of outdoor swimmers have launched a campaign against ‘chlorinated captivity’. Lidos beware! The motto of the revolution could well be: tributary, estuary, sea.  Our reporter James Purtill ventured into the algal deeps of the Hampstead Heath ponds to find out what the fuss is about.

Something had gone wrong. I had caught two trains and crossed London for a dip in the great outdoors. But on the way to the mixed bathing pond, I found myself standing before the iron gate of the men’s. I had overshot and missed the turn-off 15-minutes back. Inside these walls, a website had whispered, the regulars enforced a nude bathing rule. Enough said.

‘We advise you not to swim due to poor water-quality’ read a sign tacked on the gate. I stood awhile contemplating my options.

Chronic lung infection the least of my worries, I pushed open the gate.

The ponds's swans have earned a fierce reputation

Nature red in tooth and claw

The walled open-air concrete changing room was empty. There were no voices. A man in a tracksuit poked his head out of a little weatherboard-shack. He was the lifeguard.

‘Would you swim?’ I called out.

But he was not allowed to comment. The most he could say was: ‘not on purpose’.

‘I blame the health and safety nazis,’ said a man with gold-rimmed spectacles. He was sitting in his underwear on a bench in the shade. He also looked like he hadn’t swum.

I asked about the ritual of nude-bathing.

‘Oh no,’ said the lifeguard. ‘Loads of people think we have a nude rule for some reason. Although there is a nude sunbathing area.’ He nodded to a tin-fenced enclosure. Low murmurs issued from within. We silently considered this example of wild nature.

The pond was larger than I expected – maybe a hundred metres wide and shaded at the edges by tall trees. The water was dark green. Visibility like sago. The only swimmer was a plump white-bearded man who swam overarm to the jetty, climbed out and began rubbing himself down with a frayed towel. His beard puffed out and he looked a bit like Tolstoy. He retreated to the changing room, changed into a dark suit and departed without a word.

‘Is Leo still coming down?’ gold-spectacles asked the lifeguard.

‘No. He’s getting older,’ was the reply. ‘It’s a 4 hour roundtrip from Croydon.’

The Plunge

Eventually I got changed and jumped off the end of the jetty. Came up sputtering with cold and trace algae. Swimming a quick circuit I passed a duck perched on a buoy. It watched with barely concealed disgust.

‘Do you get many people down here?’ I asked the lifeguard when I had climbed out.

‘Oh loads,’ he said. ‘It’s a completely different crowd in summer. We get hundreds. In winter the bubble machine keeps the ice-off. Though at the mixed pond you have to chop a hole.’

Then I changed and went home; invigorated, proud of having faced down a fear of nudists and algae. Beneath the calm surface of my tube-demeanour, dear reader, I was beating my chest like a marching drum.

The Heath's many picturesque ponds once supplied London with drinking water.