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Swimming on Hampstead Heath 14/09/2003

Category: Other stuff
Date: 14 September 2003


The mighty Heath boasts no fewer than three bathing ponds plus one lido. In an effort to go as cheap as possible, I went for a dip in one of the bathing ponds which are free (as opposed to the lido which charges, though no idea how much). As my girlfriend was with me, we had to use the tiny mixed pond rather than either of its spacious male or female only cousins. Why the mixed pond should have been designed with such a tiny strand is beyond me. By definition, the mixed pool is likely to attract twice as many people as the single sex versions (not to mention large family groups), so one can only assume that the whole thing stems from the kind of pseudo-Victorian prudishness (by no means unique to Hampstead Heath) which lead to the establishment of single sex pools to start with. I guess that when the ponds were set up, the Heath authorities wanted to send out a clear message about how mixed bathing being a grubby little perversion; a message underlined by the almost embarrased location of the strand at one end of the pond, as far from impressionable eyes as possible.

The practicalities: outdoor swimming in Britain is, lets face it, something of a masochistic activity even at the best of times. In keeping with the same spirit of weather-ready preparedness which sees trains melt in summer, the ponds are sadly lacking something central to outdoor swimming, heat. Yes, in 26 degree warmth the Hampstead ponds maintain a remarkable consistant 14 degrees. Having said that, it is September, and to be honest I am gobsmacked to discover that my lengthy and expensive summer quest for outdoor swimming could have been avoided if only I'd looked half a mile down the road. The Hampstead Ponds are not for the faint of heart, those prone to colds or anyone who insists on swimming in clean water. But for all that, there is an incomparable satisfaction to getting your bone-white scrawny pidgeon chest out in the company of the Great British Body. Nothing approaching a six-pack in sight, scarcely a tan or a decent wax job to behold at this weirdly English leisure facility. Bring on them goose bumbs...

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