Hampstead Heath boss says dams project could improve Heath as he announces resignation after 12 years
The man who runs Hampstead Heath is moving to pastures new after more than a decade in the role.
Superintendent Simon Lee, who is also in charge of Highgate Wood, announced his resignation from the post after 12 years this week.
He is crossing the Thames to become chief executive of Wimbledon and Putney Commons in south London.
Mr Lee has steered the cherished green space over some major hurdles.
Chief among them were the potential closure of the Mixed Bathing Ponds nearly 10 years ago, when funding issues also saw swimming charges brought in, and the ongoing controversy over plans to drastically transform the Heath’s landscape in order to shore up its dams in the event of catastrophic flooding.
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Speaking to the Ham&High this week, he admitted to being disappointed not to see the dams project through, although he will remain in post until February to cover the duration of a public consultation due to be launched in November.
He said: “I’m very disappointed, but there’s never a good time to leave a job. However, I’m confident we’re working towards a solution that’s the right and best fit for the Heath.”
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He said that far from being a danger to the Heath’s landscape, the project represents an exciting opportunity to make it look even more natural.
The latest plans involve significant changes to the Model Boating Pond, acknowledged as the most man-made in appearance, which could see it enlarged and a tree-studded peninsula created in the middle.
“I hope people will look back in 100 years time and will see it was to the benefit of the Heath,” he said.
“Things we do now will affect our grandchildren’s view of the Heath and we have a real opportunity to do something quite courageous, in a way that could leave the boating pond looking far more natural, with a much softer landscape.”
Other landmark moments during his reign were the works carried out at Whitestone Pond and the judge’s ruling over swimming without lifeguards in 2005, which protected the City of London Corporation, which runs the Heath, from prosecution in the event of an accident.
When he first started in the job, he faced challenges of a more immediate nature. “When I first arrived I got terribly lost on the Heath,” he said. “I had to call the constabulary to come and find me.
“I mentioned it in one of my very first interviews with the Ham&High and lo and behold, the story ended up in the Daily Mail a couple of days later.
“That’s Hampstead for you. It’s a community where major editors, lawyers and judges of the country live, and that’s part and parcel of the glory of it really.”
Asked what he will miss most, Mr Lee paid tribute to the users. He also praised the scrutinising role of groups such as the Heath and Hampstead Society and the work of the Heath’s constabulary.
He added: “I will miss the community, they are everything on this site. I don’t think I have ever come across people with the passions that this site evokes.
“Sometimes they can be frustrating, but overall it’s a really significant benefit in terms of the protection of the Heath.”
He added: “It was a very difficult decision – it’s never easy to leave somewhere as wonderful as the Heath.”