It was described by a caption on a Victorian postcard as being the “Cockney Child’s Seaside,” and celebrated the expanse of fresh water that little urchins could dip their toes into and feel the gloriously rare sensation of cleanliness.
Today, while the popularity of cold water swimming on Hampstead Heath may not be the same as it was before the advent of cheap holidays in warmer foreign climes, the swimming ponds and the Lido are not just local institutions, they are known all around the world.
A new book tracing the history of swimming on Hampstead Heath, by Caitlin Davies and photographer Ruth Corney, charts the ponds’ establishment, the role they have played through generations of north Londoners and considers the reasons for their continuing popularity.
While today’s ponds may look natural, they were created for water supplies, using the Heath streams that tinkle out of the higher ground.
As early as 1544 the Corporation of the City of London was given permission to search for ways to use the plentiful fresh water to provide for the growing city.
It was either in 1589 or 1692, depending which source you believe, that the ponds were dug out as reservoirs, and swimming had begun by 1800.
Interviews with regular swimmers help explain the joys of diving into chilly spring water.
“The absence of clothes is a great leveler,” says one Men’s Pond user. “Crooks and coppers, intellectuals and wrestlers, cabinet ministers and boxers, orthodox Jews and Muslims – we’re all pals.”
The ponds had been used for swimming long before there was any formal attempt to regulate their use: the exploits of Captain George Webb, the first man to swim the Channel in 1872, and the public health drive to build baths to counter the fact that swathes of London homes had no bathrooms coincided with the rise of swimming as a leisure pursuit. Shortly after London County Council opened the Men’s Pond, Caitlin writes, the ponds attracted hardy year-round swimmers, that were referenced in The Times as being “an inoffensive kind of lunatic who harm nobody but themselves”.
People have been dipping in the ponds for 300 years, and there was a boom in Victorian times. “It was seen as healthy and became the thing to do,” says Caitlin. “But instead of paying to go to the new swimming baths popping up across the city, people realised they could swim for free in the ponds. But they were dangerous, and they had to build a proper bank for people to use to get out. Now people say they want less regulation with ponds swimming, but the Victorians wanted changing rooms.”
Caitlin estimates there are around 300 swimmers who manage to use the ponds and the Lido all year round.
“Their reasons and the enjoyment they get from a daily dip are very simple,” she says. “Although the atmosphere of the ponds is very different to the Lido – and from each other – the reasons for going all ring true.”
Caitlin has been swimming in the Lido for 45 years, and recalls warm teenage summers spent at the Ladies Pond. “It is my favourite place,” she says. “My friends and I would climb over the railings. In the winter, we’d go in with a thermos of tea and break the ice and then jump in over and again.”
Caitlin says swimming on the Heath has other hidden benefits, away from the work-out. “I do it to stay sane,” she says. “If you have something on your mind, and go for a swim, it helps sort it out. You are ready to deal with the day ahead.”
Thank you to Camden New Journal for the article