Love Your Lido: Hampstead Men's Pond

By jamesup Last edited 91 months ago
Love Your Lido: Hampstead Men's Pond
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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.

Last Updated 10 July 2010

Seed-Sower

Hello, Nice photos, but I am concerned your first, main photo is not of the Men's Pond. It is the BOATING POND, as in model boating pond, which has many of those floating rafts of greenery you can see, to encourage water birds to nest. I (female) go round there several times a week to feed them, & take my 12yr old with his model boats at other times. I think the boating pond will always be special to us, since I stood there within 24hrs of his birth, probably by that bench where a woman appears to be sitting in your photo, my new-born cosy in his pouch, facing me...& I could not get a place to sit on any of the benches, as it was the most glorious sunny October day, so I had to Stand to breathe in the peace & freedom that pond view always gives (when you find you can BREATHE again), especially that day when I was so relieved to be out of the hot confines of Barnet hospital, and I had my healthy baby son to tornado into my life!

The Men's Pond is to the Left of this Boating Pond, and is enclosed on all four sides by a fence, which you can see behind the the divers in your photos. Its amazing to watch the men jumping in, especially in cold weather, as we pass on the path between those 2 ponds wrapped up in padded waistcoats! Its also fascinating to realise all those ponds are a Dam system created from the Fleet River, so that path is like a dam wall 30 feet above the men's pond. And that boating pond is holding A LOT of water high above the man's pond, therefore. The Fleet River then even runs Under shops & homes in Kentish Town down to Fleet Street. Elderly people recall floods 30+ years ago coming UP into cellars from that river. North London, with views nearby these ponds looking Down from Kite Hill in Parliament Hills (where Im told Guy Faulkes' followers gathered to watch the Houses of Parliament go up in smoke...but were arrested)..is so High up, I'd never dreamt we could flood! So I have a bit more understanding now why EU legislation on Dams & Waterways is causing these beloved ponds, one by one to be dug up & worked on from this year!

When you say in your article "and rather more scenic bank overlooking the non-swimming pond to the north" you are referring to this view of the boating pond, where you get Lots of groups of picnickers on sunny days, & not just gay men, as your photo suggests, who of course will group in the sunshine of the gorgeous boating pond bank, as the men's pool banks are darker, being tree-lined. I would hate to think people will see your photo of the boating pond, in an article about lidos, as an invitation to even paddle, as the water shelves suddenly, & there are usually algae blooms in the summer, which have caused nasty stomach upsets in other years. This may be more controlled by the powerful pumps you can now see in action (where you DO NOT want your radio controlled boat to be drawn, into the boat graveyard!). Even paddling is not allowed here for your own safety.

Another current feature of both these ponds, is its now the fishing season, after many coots, morhens & ducks have had chicks this May/June, so along all 4 sides of the boating pond, & on the 2 opposite narrow grassy banks of the men's pond (as in front of that fence you can see), green tents are erected and long rods are positioned to catch, I'm told Carp that are freed goldfish grown to even more than a foot. Did someone say 30"? I'm not stating that, as that's enormous! One by one, a lone mother duck's Ten fluffy cute ducklings recently disappeared on the boating pond, & I suspected the carp, as well as those vicious coots. But one walker told me he'd seen a seagull trying to grab one...and another told me its more likely the pike & the terrapins, also oversized freed pets after Teenage Ninjant Turtles, on the First pond, that are greater meat eaters, and more likely to grab the chicks from below and even all but one of the Swan Signets on that first pond last year!

Yes, there's a whole line of ponds, so the First Pond is a few feet from, and below the men's pond. So let's complete the line, as on the other side, to the right of your lovely view of the boating pond, is the wildlife pond, which I recall used to be labelled as Bird pond in the Heath's annual free booklet. Then last but not least, is the Women's Pond, also enclosed by trees, on the far side of the wildlife pond, another place for free swimming. The machines to pay for your swim I understand were seen as requesting optional payment, as there was a tremendous furror a number of years ago, when it was seen that a long tradition of Free Swimming, in every way, on Hampstead Heath, was being destroyed. So when you say "most users are very dishonourable", you might just create another riot!

And finally, the icecream van that parks above the right end of the boating pond, by the loos, usually charges us 50p less for the same wippy 99 than the one at the left end of your view, nearest the men's pond...which I've even told that van driver. If they overcharge, vote with your feet: its the most gorgeous short walk, anyway!