Hampstead Heath ponds protesters bemoan impact of charges on LGTBQ+-friendly space
- Credit: Archant
Protesters have drawn attention to the impact on the LGBTQ+ community of compulsory fees for swimming at Hampstead Heath.
At a protest over the weekend, disgruntled swimmers complained that enforcing charging was an “exclusionary step” – while other swimmers said they would continue to fight the mandatory fees brought in earlier this year.
The Men’s Pond has a vibrant gay community, particularly during the summer, and campaigners argue charging is a body-blow.
The City of London Corporation (CoLC) has said the Ponds are “accessible to people of all abilities and backgrounds” but that, due to social distancing, “there is not space for sunbathing”.
Men’s Pond swimmer Tom Frederic, one of the organisers from the Forum ‘71 group, told this newspaper: “Most of the people I have talked to don’t even know what’s going on. The regular summer swimmers who hadn’t been this year before the pandemic assume this is just something to do with Covid. For so many, coming here is like coming to the lake or the beach.
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“It’s an incredibly important place for the gay community. The LGBTQ+ community have seen more than 50% of dedicated spaces closed in the last decade. The men’s pond is arguably London’s only de facto gay-friendly outdoor space.
“It’s really special to the community because of its culture, and compulsory charges spoil that ability to just turn up and swim.
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“It was magic when my first partner introduced me to the Men’s Pond. Where else do you see out gay men swimming alongside Orthodox Jewish men?”
Earl Johnson, who has been swimming there since 1978, said: “I just feel passionately that this is so unjust. It’s a dire situation, for mental health now more than ever we need this place to be free for everybody.”
Greg Kean, 77, has swum at the Men’s Pond every summer since 1965 – except this one.
He told the Ham&High: “I’ve missed swimming here – it’s the loveliest place. Especially when you are retired it’s really important to be able to go out and meet people places like here.”
The CoLC has laid out plans to wind down the online booking system for swimming and replace it at the end of the summer swimming season in September with a first-come, first-served regime.
At an online meeting of the Hampstead Heath swimming forum on Tuesday night, the CoLC was set to present “draft winter swimming proposals” to be implemented from September 21.
According to the proposals, season tickets are to be “reissued”, with time added to make up for having been suspended during lockdown.
And under-16s will only be able to use the bathing ponds when the temperature falls below 12°C – as that is when part of the ponds are roped off for safety reasons, reducing the area lifeguards need to cover.
Free morning swims for under-16s and over-60s will be introduced between 7 and 9.30am.
Payment will be solely by contactless card – with season ticket holders receiving smart wristbands to use for entry.
The CoLC has maintained compulsory charges – £2.40 for concessions and £4 for adults – are essential for the continued operation of the swimming facilities, and it has completed a “test of relevance equality analysis” and is confident protected groups are not being discriminated against.
Anne Fairweather, who heads up 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.”
Ms Fairweather said the CoLC is in discussion with swimming groups about a “comprehensive support scheme” which would help those unable to pay to use the bathing ponds. She said this would involve “free or discounted swimming for “the elderly, disabled people, job seekers, students, children and volunteers”.
The CoLC said it is hoping to work with local authorities and the NHS to help “groups who experience more exclusion or disadvantage than others” to swim.
Proposals for the support scheme will be considered by the HHMC on September 9.
Ms Fairweather said that at this time “there is not space for sunbathing” inside the swimming facilities due to social distancing requirements and temporary Covid-19 safety measures.
She added: “There are lots of other areas around the Heath where people are able to sunbathe.”