Just in time for summer, Hampstead Heath’s famous ponds have reopened so swimmers can get wet and wild again. However, things have changed since the wild-swimming pools closed in March, with new, higher charges to use them introduced for the first time in 15 years.
The ponds, which are managed by the City of London Corporation (CoLC), reopened for a small number of trial swims on Saturday July 11 and Sunday July 12, with cleaning and physical-distancing measures in place. Swimmers had to book in advance for one of two limited-capacity sessions, names were checked against a ‘guest list’ on arrival, and all swimming was social-distanced with a one-way clockwise system.
Slots for a chilly alfresco dip sold out within minutes, however, swimmers have already begun to raise concerns about the booking system and its new charges.
Many swimmers reported glitches with the online booking system and raised concerns it could exclude some regular swimmers from using the ponds. At the time of writing, the booking system has been temporarily suspended to rectify the issues. It’s due to be activated again in time for people to book swimming sessions for Saturday July 18.
The trial run was also the first time since 2005 that new, higher, compulsory charges to use the ponds have been put in place. The new fees – £4 for adults, a 100 percent increase on the previous £2 price, and £2.40 for concessions, a 140 percent increase – were passed by CoLC in March, but have faced fierce opposition from diehard bathers.
Four days ago a petition was launched by Save Our Ponds – Forum ’71 calling for CoLC to reverse the compulsory charges and it’s already received more than 1,200 signatures.
‘The unique setting, atmosphere and inclusive ethos of the bathing ponds are threatened by the City of London Corporation’s decision to impose compulsory charges and use intrusive technology,’ says Forum ‘71. ‘Many pond users have previously contributed to a donation-based system but support the fight to oppose compulsory charging because it will destroy the inclusive and diverse pond community.’
The Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association has also expressed dismay at the new fees saying: ‘We fear that the new charging regime will destroy the unique ethos and culture of the bathing ponds, which are world famous as far more than mere “swimming facilities”.
‘We are concerned that many local people will be excluded from visiting the ponds and swimming there by price increases [...], this is particularly worrying following the Covid-19 epidemic which has placed many members of our community under acute mental, physical and financial stress.
‘We believe users of the Ladies’ Pond will be disproportionately disadvantaged by the increased charges. According to ONS figures the gender pay gap for full-time workers currently stands at 8.9 percent and is over 15 percent for women over 50 (and is ‘not declining strongly over time’). The CoLC is offering some concessions and proposes a “hardship fund’ that we consider many pond swimmers will find demeaning and difficult or impossible to access.’
Anne Fairweather, chair of the City of London Corporation’s Hampstead Heath Management Committee, said the petition from Forum ’71 contained ‘false and misleading information’.
‘The new swimming charges were agreed by the elected Hampstead Heath Management Committee, following a detailed review and consultation with swimmers and the Heath Consultative Committee,’ said Fairweather.
‘Both the City Corporation and the swimmers agreed that action needed to be taken to ensure the welfare of the lifeguards, who were coming under increasing pressure after swimming numbers doubled in the last decade. Following advice issued by the Health and Safety Executive, more lifeguards and rangers needed to be employed to meet this rising demand, and are now in place.’
Fairweather confirmed that the booking system was being updated to increase the number of swimming sessions available and allow swimmers to book up to three per week.
She added: ‘We are asking all swimmers to respect the new safety arrangements, and recognise that we have limited capacity with these Covid-secure restrictions, as we welcome more people back this weekend.’
Eager for an alfresco dip? Check out these wild swimming spots and lidos near London.