Swimmers react as review launched into arrangements at Hampstead Heath ponds
- Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima
The swimming community on Hampstead Heath has been split by news the City of London Corporation (CoLC) is reviewing arrangements for taking a dip.
Some swimmers have welcomed news that the authority is looking to manage demand
Geoff Goss, 60, told this newspaper he was willing to "fight" to avoid compulsory charges for the ponds.
He said: "Basically I am a long-time swimmer of about 15 years. They can do this and that's their prerogative and there's a huge PR and media campaign to try and achieve that.
"Our view is it's a bit like the sea."
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The CoLC has said it is reviewing the swimming arrangements on the Heath after "record numbers" of people used the facilities in 2019 and it received advice from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggesting that it needed to employ more lifeguards.
It is also considering how to keep the swimming offer on the Heath sustainable over the coming years.
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The CoLC has held a number of meetings with swimming groups to discuss a way forward, and charging arrangements are one item up for discussion, it said.
Geoff, current Highgate Men's Pond Association committee member and former chair, added: "It's come up before. Now there's more people using the ponds and the Heath generally and there have been tragic deaths and they are using this to revisit the whole thing."
Geoff said it was important for today's swimmers to pick up the mantle and protect the open water swimming in the same way previous regulars did. He said: "Fifteen years ago there was a battle about this. Unfortunately lots of the swimmers who were involved then have passed on."
Robert Sutherland Smith, longstanding chair of the United Swimmer's Association, said: "They have said there was obviously a big increase in numbers in 2019.
"But why didn't we hear the same story in 2017 or 18? It seems to me they are using this advice to rush into the changes they have always wanted to do."
Nicky Mayhew, co-chair of the Kenwood Ladies' Pond Association, who previously cautiously welcomed the review of swimming arrangements, added: "It's still too early to give a definitive response to the consultation as we are awaiting proposals from the CoLC, but it would be fair to say that we do have some concerns about what may be on their agenda and the very condensed timetable for reaching decisions."
However, one swimmer, Kelly Haddow, told the Ham&High that protecting the Heath's ponds was worth a small fee. She said: "The ponds have been a lifesaver. I deal with the joy of living with mental health issues and over a year ago I witnessed someone jumping in front of a train. I worked through it by getting on the train from St Albans to get to the women's pond everyday when I felt comfortable with getting back on a train.
"I chose to get the membership for the ponds and lido since I was swimming daily for months at the mixed pond and I know the charges aren't enforced consistently. The price compared to a gym with a pool is insane. Works out far better for me."
Another female swimmer was in favour of changes which might help reduce overcrowding. The woman said: "I feel we are taken advantage of and if you want to control numbers perhaps we need a locals' membership for UK and London people and a visitors one for the droves who visit in summer. We do not want turnstiles and an enforced system of payment or for this comparatively wild place turned into a facility. Perhaps locals could have a pass to gain entry on busy days."
Announcing the review of swimming arrangements, the CoLC emphasised it would not necessarily involve introducing compulsory charges to use the ponds.
The review of swimming arrangements was discussed at a meeting of the CoLC's Hampstead Heath, Highgate Wood, and Queen's Park committee last week but the public and press were excluded from that element of the meeting on the basis of legal advice thought to pertain to commercial arrangements.