Wild swimming in the ponds on Hampstead Heath is one of the most special things London has to offer on a hot summer’s day, Despite it being free, and strangely glamorous, it’s something few Londoners have actually done.
There are three swimming ponds in total – one for men, one for women and one mixed. In addition to the swimming ponds there are a host of other ponds too, for dog swimming, sailing model boats and other assorted activities. The ponds were created in the 19th century from the River Fleet for use as reservoirs to provide water to London’s rapidly expanding population. Because the river runs through the swimming ponds, they are perfectly clean and safe to swim in.
The ponds are crazy busy on a hot weekend – the mixed pond is always the busiest – but during the week it’s a different story. It will be just you, a handful of other bathers, and a few ducks and moorhen for company. Our favourite pond is the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond which is situation at the end of a charming, shady lane far up Highgate West Hill, almost at Highgate itself. It’s a bit of a trek by public transport but you can park there for free after 10am. The women’s pond is entirely hidden from view by trees and bushes to protect your modesty from picnickers and amblers on the Heath.
Once you pass through the gate with its solemn ‘women only’ sign you reach the wooden deck at the edge of the pond. There are women lifeguards and changing rooms with newly installed hot showers. But when it’s busy you can just get changed in the meadow or on the jetty itself. There are no lockers – you just hang your clothes on a peg. It feels perfectly safe and there’s something about this trust that adds to the old-world charm.
Don’t wear your best swimming costume as you will emerge smelling slightly of pond water – a smell I rather like – and with a thin layer of silt on your chest. Your skin and hair will thank you for the lack of chlorine and harsh chemicals and you will notice the difference to how you feel emerging from a swimming pool.
You enter the water by descending a ladder from the wooden deck. If it is a busy day you may well have a queue behind you and will just have to get on with it which is by far the best way to get in the water. The cold water is of course a bit of a shock to the system at first, but I find that after four breast strokes I’ve acclimatised and feel perfectly warm.
The pond looks quite small but it has an amazing ability of accommodating a lot of people. Apart from when it’s very busy, you really can feel that it’s just you and a few wildfowl for company. Swimming here is one of the most wonderful ways to get close to wildlife in London and the level of trust between human and bird is magical. There are often ducks, moorhen and Canadian geese in the pond with you and the last time I visited a teeny-tiny line of ducklings glided right past me and one bumped up to my nose.
The pond is, as far as you are concerned, bottomless, and you are not allowed to venture to the sides. The wooden platform is the only place you are able to enter and leave the water. Because of this, you have to keep swimming (there are some strategically placed buoys if you need a rest) but don’t let that put you off because the temperature means you will want to keep swimming anyway.
Swimming here is a sociable activity, go with a friend and chit-chat your way through the lengths. After about twenty minutes you will start to feel a little chilly and want to get out and so it’s time for a hot shower and to dry-off under the sun in the secluded women-only meadow next door.
Swimming in the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond is one of the most delightful things you can do in London in the summer and I would really urge you to put aside any squeamishness you may have a give it a go. I think that you will love it too.
Last year I decided to keep swimming in the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath through the seasons, whatever the weather.
Here is how I got on.
This autumn I had an article on my experience of wild swimming published in the wonderful Creative Countryside magazine.