Hampstead Heath 150: Swimmers celebrate a ‘breathtaking paradise’

Margaret Dickinson winter swimming at the Mixed Pond

Margaret Dickinson winter swimming at the Mixed Pond - Credit: Ruth Corney

Among those who most appreciate the value of Hampstead Heath are the swimmers who brave the elements throughout the year.

The great controversy over the last 18 months has been the compulsory charges introduced by the City of London Corporation for use of the Ponds, with many arguing the cost means they are no longer open for use by all. The City says the charges are needed for the facilities to remain sustainable.

But the reason the charges have drawn such a reaction is that swimmers know how beneficial the Ponds are for people from all walks of life.

Ahead of the anniversary of the 1871 Act on June 29, Members of the Kenwood Ladies' Pond Association (KLPA) spoke about life with the Heath. 

Mary Cane, 74, started swimming at the ladies' pond 40 years ago and was among those who set up the KLPA when the Greater London Council (GLC) was abolished.

"There were interesting women there," she said. "Quite a few of the elderly had been refugees from Germany during the war.

“During winter a few of us would swim at 7am. The lifeguard would come in to the changing room which was a tiny hut and fill up a big bucket with hot water, which we would stand in with feet and hands to get warm.

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“The ladies pond is quite special because it is enclosed and it feels like a safe place, and is just beautiful.”

Swimmers return to Hampstead Heath's Mixed Pond in July 2020

Swimmers return to Hampstead Heath's Mixed Pond in July 2020 - Credit: Aaron Chown / PA

Jane Shallice, 78, a former chair of the KLPA, started swimming at the ladies’ pond in 1964. 

“The fact this was a place where you could sunbathe with just women was hugely important," she said.

“When I started there were a few of us regulars and it would be a bathing pond rather than a swimming pond. When wild swimming became important, it was a good thing in lot of ways, but it has put a lot of pressure on a place like the pond."

Jane remembers Simon Lee, at the time the superintendent of Hampstead Heath, asked if they would permit him to swim in the ladies' pond and they agreed.

“When he came out he said that of all the swimming places on the Heath, this pond was the most beautiful," said Jane, who has campaigned against the charges.

“It was free when I started swimming there," she said. "That changed when the City decided to make it an income generator as well.”

Margaret Dickinson winter swimming at the Ladies’ Pond

Margaret Dickinson winter swimming at the Ladies’ Pond - Credit: A lifeguard

Margaret Dickinson, 78, started swimming at the Heath in the mid-1960s and was active with the KLPA during the various campaigns against threats to the Ponds.

“In the mid-1970s  the GLC planned to close the Lido; around 2004/5 the City of London wanted to close the Mixed Pond and reduce hours in the other two ponds;  and now the new charging regime," she said.

“We only still have the lido and Mixed Pond because there were major public campaigns involving not only local swimmers but other Heath users, swimmers from other areas and many people who value similar places and understand that closure in one area leads to closures in others.

“The experience underlines the need to demand of authorities that they take a long view of managing public resources.”

Anne burley at Hampstead Heath

Anne burley at Hampstead Heath - Credit: Ruth Corney

Anne Burley, 85, first swam at the ladies’ pond in the 1960s. 

“The ladies pond is a unique place, it is  absolutely wonderful that it is in the middle of a big city like London. 

“It’s about the community. People felt able to share the things happening to them. The fact of having so many people now has changed the atmosphere and it is not the same as it used to be. 

“There should be a consideration about the effect charges will have on people who have been swimming there for many years and might not be able to continue to do so.”

Sheila Fitzgerald, 63, said: “It’s been a central experience of my life for the past 20 years. It’s an important aspect that the ladies pond is a community, it’s much more than just a swimming place. We have to have stewards to understand that is a value.

“For young girls growing up going to the ladies pond and seeing women comfortable in their own body is just invaluable.”

Sheila Fitzgerald, winter swimming

Sheila Fitzgerald, winter swimming - Credit: Sheila Fitzgerald

Sharon, 66, who has been going for around seven years, said: “One of the best memories would be going at a time when people break the ice when jumping in the water, and it is usually freezing.”

"Ponds not profit" - Hampstead Heath swimmers protest outside of a City of London Corporation meeting in early March 2020

"Ponds not profit" - Hampstead Heath swimmers protest outside of a City of London Corporation meeting in early March 2020 - Credit: Sam Volpe