BOB HALL: Going on the Heath is good for your health

PUBLISHED: 09:36 08 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:46 07 September 2010

Increasingly, evidence shows that being in the countryside is good for the body and the mind. It is said that communing with nature , or however you may wish to describe this most basic and fundamentally personal of experiences, helps ease burdens on lim

Increasingly, evidence shows that being in the countryside is good for the body and the mind. It is said that "communing with nature", or however you may wish to describe this most basic and fundamentally personal of experiences, helps ease burdens on limb and spirit through exercise and stimulation.

But for the foresight of lovers of the Heath in the mid-19th century, and their tenacity in holding to a wish to ensure that the future is not all roadway and buildings, the Heath would now, undoubtedly, be a largely developed area.

The legislation in 1871 which vested the Heath in the Metropolitan Board of Works expressly addressed this issue by requiring the Board (and, therefore, any successor) 'to forever keep the Heath open, unenclosed, unbuilt upon and by all lawful means prevent, resist and abate all encroachment on the Heath and attempted encroachment and protect the Heath and preserve it as an open space'.

The City of London Corporation, which has owned and managed the Heath since 1989, is also required to preserve 'the natural aspect' and 'to drain level and improve the Heath only as far as may be from time to time requisite with a view to its use for the purposes of health and unrestricted exercise and recreation'. So it is that today's careful and learned research confirms what our forebears - and Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet - recognised and understood, and which was reflected by Parliament, in all its wisdom, in the 1871 Act.

The degree and nature of the use of the Heath varies with the seasons. Generally speaking, the colder temperatures of the winter weeks deter several of the gentler recreational pursuits. Some activities continue unabated, while others are much reduced, but continue throughout the year to the satisfaction of the dedicated participants. Perhaps the most prominent of these is swimming in the three designated ponds on the Heath and the Lido.

Open-air swimming on Hampstead Heath is long established. The Upper Hampstead Pond (now known as the Mixed Bathing Pond) has been used for swimming since at least 1825. Today, swimming also takes place at the Men's Pond (opened in 1893), the Ladies' Pond and the Lido (opened in 1937).

The Men's and Ladies ponds are unique in the UK, because they are the only life guarded open water swimming facilities open for use every day of the year. It is estimated that the ponds receive around 215,000 visits a year and on average, 100 'regulars' swim in the ponds throughout the year.

The Ponds are attractive to swimmers of all ages for various reasons, including their chemical-free water, lack of artificial heating and beautiful surroundings. The Ladies' Pond provides a unique secluded retreat for female swimmers. In the summer, many families come to swim in the Mixed Pond, while the Men's Pond provides a male-only swimming environment.

Ideally, all three bathing ponds and the Lido would be open to the public, free of charge, every day of the year from dawn to dusk. Unfortunately, legal and financial issues prevent this.

An excellent arrangement for enabling swimming in the Mixed Pond in winter months (when it would otherwise be closed) was reached after an elegant ruling in 2005 by Mr Justice Stanley Burnton, in an action brought by the United Swimmers Association of Hampstead Heath.

This established the position that the owner of the Pond [the City of London] would have a limited immunity from the strictures of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. To be precise, they applied to adults who were aware of the risks involved in swimming in cold and deep water, without lifeguards, and in circumstances where there are no hidden dangers. Acceptance of these rules had to be given in writing.

Such is the Heath's international reputation that this judgement was reported on in Canada, the USA, the Caribbean, Australia, India, Russia and many European countries.

Some have said that were it not for the Ponds, they would move out of London - and it is clear that they provide pleasure to many people, including the famous. For example, whenever she was in London, Katharine Hepburn tried to find time to swim in the Ladies' Pond.

The Ponds and the Lido must be protected as a most treasured feature of the Heath.

Bob Hall is Chairman, Hampstead Heath

Management Committee

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