Blind swimmer says Hampstead Heath Ponds are being ‘ripped away’ from her
- Credit: Archant
“As a blind person I can’t see beauty. But when I dive into the Ponds I experience it as a physical sensation. I’m immersed in cold water and detached from any other sense. It’s pure touch, pure physical sensation. That’s the way I experience beauty and joy.”
Ann Griffin, a 56-year-old from Tufnell Park, has been swimming at the Hampstead Heath Ponds for 20 years. Five years ago she started losing her vision after being diagnosed with a degenerative eyesight condition - retinitis pigmentosa.
Today, she is severely visually impaired - registered blind - and uses a white cane as her physical aid. While her vision has gradually deteriorated, Ann has continued to swim at the Ponds with her carer, who guides her through the water.
“Swimming at the Ponds is a total lifeline,” Ann told the Ham&High. “It’s what holds me together and it’s what makes living in London possible.
“It’s what allows someone who has quite a lot of difficulties in life to find a place that gives utter serenity and a sense of wellbeing and belonging.”
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An architect by trade, Ann’s loss of eyesight has left her with little paid work. In July, the City of London Corporation (CoLC) introduced compulsory charging (£2.40 for concessions, £4 for adults) which it says will improve the Ponds’ sustainability and safeguard its long-term future.
Due to her blindness, Ann qualifies for a concessionary season ticket of £66. But as this amounts to more than 10 per cent of her working tax credits per month, Ann says she now cannot afford to swim or pay for her three daughters to use the Ponds.
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Ann said access to swimming at the Heath for disabled and vulnerable people who don’t have the means to pay, like herself, was being “ripped away”.
“The ladies’ pond is a sanctuary and a refuge for people who need it now more than ever,” she said.
“But since the introduction of compulsory charging, the demographic of swimmers has completely shifted and we’re losing young people.”
Ann called on the CoLC to revisit a system of voluntary charging so that people willing and able to pay could.
To ensure Ann can continue to swim at the Ponds, her carer has covered the cost of her season ticket.
However Ann says she often has to “negotiate” and “beg” gate attendants at the ladies’ pond to allow her carer to enter for free - despite this being granted by the CoLC.
A member of the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association, Ann disagrees that compulsory charges would ensure the “sustainability” of the Ponds - as the CoLC believes - due to younger swimmers being “cut out”.
She claims swimmers’ desire for change at the Ponds prior to compulsory charging had been misrepresented, and that this previous support was directed towards a better “infrastructure” of payments, rather than compulsory charging as a whole.
Citing the Hampstead Heath Act of 1871, some swimmers claim it is wrong to charge to use part of the Heath as it is a public space.
The CoLC, however, says the legal basis for compulsory charging was made clear in its committee report in March, when the new system was approved.
It says the Ponds take up around a fifth of the Heath’s budget and that the charges to swim there, which include concessionary rates for disabled people, will ensure they can survive in the future.
Anne Fairweather, chair of the CoLC’s Hampstead Heath management committee, said: “The Heath’s swimming facilities are accessible to people of all abilities and backgrounds.
“We are providing subsidised swimming with fair pricing, with concessions bringing down the cost of adult swimming to as low as £2.40.
“We have agreed a comprehensive support scheme for people who cannot afford to pay to swim.
“This package includes free or discounted swimming for the elderly, disabled people, job seekers, students, children and volunteers.”
Between 7am to 9.30am, people over the age of 60 and under 16 are eligible for a free swim.
Ms Fairweather added: “We are also offering discounts to people on Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment.
“And we are discussing how we can work with local authorities and the NHS to offer free and cut-price swimming to groups who experience more exclusion or disadvantage than others.”