Hampstead Heath swimmers prepare to defend historic ponds

Bathers on Hampstead Heath are mobilising to protect the historic ponds from the dams project and any future money-making schemes planned for the beauty spot.

Last month swimmers mustered for the first-ever meeting of Highgate Men’s Pond Association (HMPA).

The group was set up to form a united front in the wake of recent proposals by the City of London Corporation, which manages the Heath, to enforce compulsory charges for the bathing pools and long-term plans for major dam works.

The Mixed Pond Association (MPA) also gathered for the first time in June to discuss ways of safeguarding against any changes to the bathing pools, which date back to 1703.

Geoff Goss, chairman of the HMPA, which has signed up more than 140 members, said until now the bathers had only a limited means to represent their interests.

But the new association will allow bathers to better scrutinise and challenge the need for the dams project.

“There are a mixture of opinions down here, with some questioning whether they really need to do this work or if they could come up with cheaper and less disruptive ways of dealing with the threat of flooding,” said Mr Goss, a senior lecturer in engineering at the London South Bank University.

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City bosses claim that laws being considered by parliament will make the damming of all 23 ponds a “legal requirement”, but the men’s group could challenge the stance.

Mr Goss, who has been swimming in the Men’s Pond for eight years, said the HMPA will also seek to block any future plans to charge for use of the ponds – which was met with fierce criticism when it was floated by the City of London in March.

“We regard this as a little bit of countryside and we don’t want it to be an ordinary swimming pool,” said Mr Goss, from Kentish Town.

“There is a fundamental difference between the two, and the interests of the City are not necessarily the same as ours.

“They have a budget which is their concern, but we’re more worried about the future of the ponds and how they will be protected for the next generation of swimmers.”

MPA secretary Joy Walter, who gathered 7,000 signatures opposing plans to charge and partially close the ponds in 2004, has signed up more than 40 members for the group after the City consulted on plans to build a sunbathing area at the Mixed Pond.

“The majority of people are saying don’t change it, there is no need,” she said.

“The whole ethos is about being in nature, so we don’t need hot showers or a sun bathing area. We have everything we need and it doesn’t need to change.”

Robert Sutherland Smith, chairman of the United Swimmers Association, which was set up in the late 1990s, welcomed the formation of the two new associations.

“I think it’s perfectly healthy because each pond will have its particular problems,” said Mr Sutherland Smith, who has signed up to the HMPA.

“As long as everyone still talks to each other at each association then it will be fine. We don’t want to see this notion of divide and rule.”