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Ponds swim charges: What price for sustainability?

OPINION: Nicky Mayhew, co-chair of the Kenwood Swimming Association, warns that cold water dips on the Heath must not become a 'money-making machine'

01 March, 2020 — By Nicky Mayhew

I AGREE with so much in Karina Dostalova’s article about Hampstead Heath that it is sad to find distance between us in our thinking about its world-famous swimming ponds. I am grateful to the City of London and all who work and volunteer on Hampstead Heath for their care and stewardship.

It is indeed an iconic location that provides a vital sanctuary in the heart of one of the world’s busiest capital cities. I don’t think I am alone in feeling that I would find it hard to carry on living in London without having access to the open spaces, luxuriant vegetation and majestic views of the Heath.

In 1989 the City took over Hampstead Heath and, in 2005, introduced charges at the swimming ponds. Until then swimming on the Heath – like roaming – had been free for all.

Today there are still men and women who uphold the principle that swimming on the Heath should be free, in exactly the same way as it is at the seaside. Other pond users say they are more than willing to contribute to the cost of running the ponds they love and enjoy.

Relying on a self-policed “honesty” system respects both sincerely held points of view and allows the swimming ponds to remain peaceful places of natural beauty that are accessible and affordable to all – rich, poor and everyone in between – in line with the City of London’s own inclusive “Heath Vision”. For many of us, connecting with nature by swimming in the ponds is essential for our mental and physical wellbeing.

Even so, few swimmers would want to feel that their pleasure in swimming was taken at the expense of other Heath users, or the conservation of the natural environment. Over the last month, in the course of consultation with the City, we have been dismayed at the suggestion that the swimming ponds are “unsustainable” and that swimmers are to blame for a shortfall in revenue.

The City says that over a fifth of the Heath’s budget is being spent on running swimming facilities as visitor numbers soar and the swimming subsidy “spirals”, yet its own research finds that 19 per cent (nearly a fifth) of visits to the Heath are related to swimming, so is this really disproportionate?

The City’s figures also appear to show that in real terms, allowing for CPI inflation, funding of Hampstead Heath has fallen by some 37 per cent over the last 10 years.

We are told that running costs at the ponds are rising, but our calculations suggest that during the same ten-year period the net cost has fallen by 9 per cent after allowing for inflation, in spite of increasing swimmer numbers. In reality we, the user groups, have been telling the City for years that they need to make it easier for people to pay. Signage at the gates of the Ladies’ Pond says nothing about charges.

A visitor walking towards the changing area may – or may not – spot two elderly green parking ticket dispensers (no change given) that sometimes work but often don’t. If they are working, she may be fortunate enough to have the correct change to pay the £2 fee (£1 concession). No contactless payment method is offered, but our visitor may – or may not – see a discreet metal post inviting “Contributions”.

If she looks hard enough, she might notice the small sign on a nearby wall listing charges, which says that season tickets are available from the Lido Ticket Kiosk but doesn’t explain that they can also be purchased online (a recent innovation that has received little publicity). Our visitor might be forgiven for being a little confused and, if she does manage to buy a season ticket, she will never be reminded when it is due for renewal. The City of London insists that it remains committed to providing affordable, subsidised swimming at the ponds.

We have repeatedly asked what level of revenue they would consider sustainable but, so far, no figure has been given.

We know that many swimmers are horrified by the prospect of increased charges, mechanical barriers and heavy-handed enforcement of payment, all of which would destroy the ethos of these unique and incalculably precious places and possibly exclude those who simply cannot afford to pay.

The pond user groups have been told that lifeguarding costs are set to rise following Health & Safety Executive advice.

We are fully committed to the need to protect the Heath for current and future generations, but it must not be treated as a money-making machine.


  • The opinion piece by Karina Dostalova, Chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Hampstead Heath Management Committee, was published in full last week and can be read at our website. She said only 4 per cent of swimmers are currently paying a fee


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