We're giving London's Lidos some love this summer. This week, Hampstead Men's Pond, and yes, we know it's not technically a Lido.
Every proper city has a place for the boys to hang our in the summer months; New York has Pier 54, Chicago has Hollywood Beach, Paris has Pere Lachaise Cemetery (how noir...) and London? London bests them all with the Men's Pond at Hampstead Heath.
On the spectrum of outdoor swimming Hampstead occupies both the most sparkling and murky spots. The stainless steel vastness that is Parliament Hill Lido offers some of the cleanest swimming in London, and just a few minutes walk away are the rather less crystal-clear waters of Hampstead Ponds.
Before the interwar Lido craze, and the changing attitudes to cleanliness that took hold in the 1930s, there was a choice of swimming ponds in London with spring fed lakes at Victoria Park, Whips Cross and elsewhere. Now if you want to swim as nature intended you'll have to head west for the Serpentine, or north to Hampstead Heath and the ponds operated by the Corporation of London.
Hampstead offers three ponds: one for men and women, one for the girls and one for the boys, a provision that dates back to a time of greater modesty but has been retained into the modern age. There's a steady following of locals and members of the nearby Jewish community, but come those rare sunny summer weekends the Men's pond becomes London's Soho-on-sea and the nearby grass (and rather more scenic bank overlooking the non-swimming pond to the north) is hubbub with gay men sporting swimwear more usually spotted on the Copacabana than in NW5.
Swimming ponds are now back in fashion: they're low cost, environmentally friendly, visually attractive and with no chemical nasties they are the aquatic equivalent of eating organic. It can be a little disconcerting to feel something fishy brush against your feet out of sight, but the ducks make amusing company and this is also one of the few swimming places in London where the health and safety people haven't ripped out the diving board and plastered everything in warning signs. The ponds are all fed by London's most famous invisible river - the Fleet - and the water warms up over the summer. In May it was a crisp 17 degrees, on Friday it hit a more welcoming 22. The City of London publish temperatures on their web page, along with water quality tests (no more than 2,000 faecal coliforms per 100 ml of water last week - phew).
The mixed pond is a little way away, not as large, doesn't have a diving board and is rather spoiled by the lack of suitable sun facing hill nearby to to assist in that ever-so challenging quest of heating up sufficiently to want to jump in a freezing lake. We hear that the women's is the best of all, but it's obscured by trees from view and we weren't allowed in.
After some debate a few years back they introduced an honour system payment of two pounds for swimming (and most users are very dishonourable). If you're bringing first timers it's best to assemble at Kentish Town, Hampstead or Gospel Oak and walk up. There's normally a good hand-full of chaps grasping their phones having the “I'm by the lake, not the swimming one, the other one, no... my back is to Kentish Town and I’m near the bins... which tree... they are all leafy!?” conversation, meanwhile the 3G networks grinds to a halt under the unexpected pressure of 500 iPhone users loading google maps and tweeting pictures of their friends dives. There's also no shop within convenient distance, so anything you want beyond a 99 and a warm Fanta should be bought in advance.
The water may be murky and the ice-cream van might be a rip-off, but the ponds are a world away from anywhere else in London. For all the crowds they can still be a tranquil pleasure normally denied to big city residents. It's our bit of the coast in north London, and we love it.