'It's a unique place': Highgate Men's Pond's retiring chief lifeguard

Now-retired Highgate men's pond lifeguard Steve O'Connell

Now-retired Highgate men's pond lifeguard Steve O'Connell - Credit: Flora Bowen

It is a cold, muddy day on Hampstead Heath and Steve O’Connell, who has just retired as chief lifeguard at Highgate Men’s Pond after 25 years, watches over the water from the wooden staff hut. 

“Look – that pair of swans, that’s Penny and Kobe.” 

Two swans glide at the eastern edge of the pond. When Steve calls them, he tells me, they will swim over to him. Even the birds are under the 60-year-old's authority here. 

Steve is a local boy who went to school St Dominic's Catholic Primary, but preferred swimming and sport to studying. After a stint as a butcher and in the lifeguard team in Islington, he found his place at the ponds. 

“I mean, I left school with no education. And then I started of lifeguarding, and found I could do it really well. I felt I was good at it. I felt good that I was good.”

Now-retired Highgate men's pond lifeguard Steve O'Connell

Now-retired Highgate men's pond lifeguard Steve O'Connell - Credit: Flora Bowen

The community of the Ponds has defined Steve’s career. He is very proud of his team, whom he describes as the best lifeguards in the country. Over the years, he jokes, he has spent more time here with his colleagues than with his wife. 

Their camaraderie extends to the regular swimmers. 

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“It's a really lovely community of people here. And it takes a bit of time for them to accept you. But you know, there's a whole diverse group of people who come here. It's really nice, you know, right up from politicians all the way down to all sorts of people from all walks of life. And they come in, they strip off, and they're all the same.”

One particular connection stands out: Al Alvarez, the Hampstead-based poet, novelist, essayist and critic who was a regular visitor to the ponds before his death in 2019. Steve features regularly in his swimmer’s diary Pondlife: A Swimmer's Journal as the "super-fit lifeguard" who "hammers up and down the pond" and has started to write poetry and read Orwell in his spare time. 

Life on the Heath is different to the city, he says.  People greet each other, changing the moment they step on to the grass. 

“There’s not many cities in the world that have got this. It’s a unique place, absolutely unique”

This sense of decency is important to Steve, who addresses his regulars as "sir" or "madam", and trains younger lifeguards to show the same respect. 

“We bend over backwards to look after people. The whole ethos of the place is to do that."

Now-retired Highgate men's pond lifeguard Steve O'Connell

Now-retired Highgate men's pond lifeguard Steve O'Connell - Credit: Tom Kearney/Highgate Men's Pond Association

As we speak, Steve's gaze darts over the water, even though today the rain has closed the ponds to visitors. He is so attuned to subtle movements that he can detect that someone may come into danger from just the way they walk down the steps into the water; he has undertaken so many rescues he has lost count. 

He emphasises that in his role he protects not just swimmers, but also the land. He enjoys watching the cormorants, kingfishers and herons who visit the ponds, alongside the swimmers, celebrities, and ordinary Londoners, united by the chilling waters. 

As well as supervising the visitors and wildlife, Steve takes responsibility for training the next generation of lifeguards in Hampstead Heath and across the UK.  

“I can put them on the right path, and maybe be a little bit of a mentor. I like to think of myself as mentoring them. With my good habits, not my bad habits. When I'm training people, I always think of them as my kids, to look at them like they're my youngsters.

"I always think of myself like as a sergeant in the Army. I’ll be quite harsh on them when they start answering me back.

“They, like myself, don’t really have a clue what's going on, you know, these are kids from flats, you know, they're not kids who’ve got well-to-do parents that push them in the right direction.

“If you can get them when they're young, and teach them how to work hard, then you can give them skills that they can use for the rest of their life.” 

Outside of lifeguarding, Steve is a family man, who hopes to spend more time with his wife, their three children, and three grandchildren in retirement. But he won’t stay away for long, as the call of the ponds is strong. 

“Swimming in the cold, it's just like euphoria when you get out and you just feel good.”

Now-retired Highgate men's pond lifeguard Steve O'Connell

Now-retired Highgate men's pond lifeguard Steve O'Connell - Credit: Flora Bowen