The outdoor freshwater swimming experience of dipping in one of the Hampstead Heath ponds is an essential part of a London’s summer. People have been enjoying the idyll of wild swimming surrounded by the grassy heath for hundreds of years.
Set in the midst of a vast green open space in North London, the Hampstead Heath ponds are one of those hidden experiences that deliver a real summer treat. Hampstead’s three bathing ponds are fed by springs of the River Fleet and were originally dug in the 17th and 18th centuries as reservoirs to meet London’s growing demand for water.
The Hampstead Heath ponds offer a cooling dip in murky brown water. Choose between the men’s pond, the ladies’ pond or the mixed pond, stake out a bit of grass for your towel and bask and bathe the afternoon away. Despite what you might think from its appearance, the water is tested daily and meets stringent quality guidelines.
Highgate Men’s Bathing Pond has an incredibly social atmosphere. On a warm sunny day most of London’s gays seem to converge on the grassy bank adjacent to the entrance to the pond. Groups of friends congregate, strip down to their speedos, share snacks and drinks, pose, promenade, people watch, and work on their tans.
Before entering the pond via a wooden jetty you pass through a changing facility with showers. There’s even a small area inside the changing enclosure for nude sun bathing. This area is incredibly popular — at the first sign of a summer day it’s packed. Unless you’re there early, it’s difficult to find space to spread your towel and work on your all-over tan.
Kenwood Ladies’ Pond is part of the chain of ponds, situated on the eastern fringe of Hampstead Heath and hidden on a light-dappled path canopied by towering trees. As you approach the gate to the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond it feels as if you have taken a Narnia-like step out of the city and into a pastoral idyll. It is the only pond on Hampstead Heath reserved solely for ladies’ swimming. From 1926 until the present day, it has been a women-and-girls-only zone — all the lifeguards are also women, which is very ‘unique and rare’.
The men’s and women’s ponds are open year-round and are supervised by a lifeguard. Opening times vary with the seasons (from 7am or 8am until 3.30pm in winter and 8.30pm at the height of summer). The mixed pond closes in winter tho. It’s the least secluded of the three and can sometimes get crowded in summer.
Diving, swimming, tanning, people-watching. There is no better place to spend a sunny day in London. It takes a bit of planning to get to but is relatively accessible via public transport.