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‘Safe swimming’ plan to open up the Heath ponds

Exclusive: Draft plans show dips will be limited to one hour sessions

28 May, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

The ponds on Hampstead Heath this week

RADICAL changes to swimming on Hampstead Heath have been laid out in a draft document produced by its managers.

The three bathing ponds are currently closed but when the City of London is given the green light that it is safe to enter the waters once more, swimmers are likely to find a new system has been introduced.

Managers and swimming groups alike are wary of how it can cater for the high number of people who may want to use the Heath’s cooling waters on hot days.

If the ponds reopen under stringent new guidelines Heath staff will be tasked with enforcing rules such as allotted swimming slots, social distancing, and a no-sunbathing rule, the draft guidelines suggest.

Other plans include bringing in compulsory charges, which the Heath’s management committee controversially voted to approve before the coronavirus crisis took hold. The ponds have historically been free and the City of London faced protests outside its meeting in February.

Under the proposed plans for reopening, swimmers would need to buy tickets using a cashless wristband system. Other ideas include online booking for specified, hour-long sessions to ensure there is no overcrowding, and new rules regarding the directions bathers can swim in.

The closure of the springboard at the Men’s Pond is being considered, as is the creation of a new exit to create a one-way system to enter and leave changing areas. A small group of protesters last week demanded the ponds reopen immediately, accusing the City of “drowning in bureaucracy”.

But the Men’s Pond Swimming Association has backed the City’s decision to keep them closed, agreeing that it is a sensible course of action taken with the safety of lifeguards in mind.

“Warm weather has made closure of the ponds feel particularly cruel and we are keen to get back in the water, but the epidemic is not yet over,” the association said in a statement. Although the government announced that swimming could resume in lakes and the sea, this does not apply to swimming places like the Heath where legislation and Health and Safety Executive advice requires lifeguard supervision.”

It added: “The only exception to this is the Winter Swimming Club (WSC) at the Mixed Pond, which is licensed to allow swimming without lifeguards between October and April for certified members only.”

The association said the reopening of the Serpentine in Hyde Park was not comparable to the ponds, as it required swimmers to be members of a club which gives them the right to swim without lifeguards.

They added: “Having talked to our own lifeguards, we accept the City’s decision that under current government guidelines it is not yet possible to resume swimming and ensure either staff or swimmer safety and protection.”

An emergency general meeting will be held next week, with the group working closely with the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association and the City.

Asked about plans for socially distanced swimming, a City spokesperson said it had “nothing further to add”, but speaking last week, they said: “The situation will be kept under review and we will reopen as soon as it is safe to do so.”

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