Can You Swim In The Trafalgar Square Fountains?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 24 months ago

Last Updated 07 June 2022

Can You Swim In The Trafalgar Square Fountains?
French football fans dance in the fountains, following their team's World Cup win in 2018. Image: Shutterstock

The temptation has been there since 1845, from the moment architect Sir Charles Barry switched on the two mighty fountains he'd designed to embellish Trafalgar Square.

They've changed since then (Barry's original red granite fountains were shipped to Canada in 1939), but the replacement water features remain unguarded, glistening and altogether tempting to those looking to cool off from the heat... or perhaps one too many cans of lager.

But are you actually allowed to slip off your shoes and take to the pigeon-feathered waters? The short answer is: no. Although Westminster Council tells us it's not illegal per se, it does heavily advise against frolicking in the fountains. Signage around them echoes that sentiment, and the council stresses that you CAN land yourself in, well, hot water, possibly even getting a fine.

Throughout time, however, the temptation has proved too much for many...

Cooling off in Trafalgar Square's fountains

Belfast News-Letter, 15 August 1923. Image © Johnston Press plc. Created courtesy of The British Library Board.

With the Thames in central London largely off limits, Londoners have often resorted to fountains during stifling city summers. Ironically however, one of the earliest accounts of someone swimming in the fountains, is this cartoonish episode, from November(!) 1899:

South Wales Daily News, 14 November 1899. With thanks to the National Library of Wales. All rights reserved.

By the 1930s, there's plenty of photographic evidence to show that sweltering Londoners couldn't resist the fountains — feet and heads dipped into the cooling (and likely filthy) ponds.

The Sphere, 5 July 1930. Image © Illustrated London News Group

London has sometimes become so hot, the fountains have had to be switched off due to hosepipe bans. In April 2012, they managed to swerve this measure by using water that's usually dumped for health and safety reasons (another reason why dabbling in the waters is ill-advised).

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the fountains were turned off because it was feared the water's reflection would help guide enemy Zeppelins. Some of the city's homeless swiftly moved into the basins, which the press rather insensitively dubbed 'The Fountain Hotel'.

Daily Mirror, 1 August 1914. mage © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board

To this day — despite a 2005 paddling ban, not to mention a resurgence in lidos and outdoor swimming — the Trafalgar Square fountains are subject to people taking to the shallow waters — some more naked than others:

From the Evening Standard, 14 August 2013

Celebrating in Trafalgar Square's fountains

Which brings us to the other reason people are drawn to the fountains: celebration. Famously, the fountains were danced in by Londoners during the feverish VE Day celebrations during May 1945. The end of hostilities came at a good time: May also saw a heatwave:

Liverpool Echo, 18 May 1945. Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board

As we've already learned, some people don't wait for London to heat up before braving the shallow depths. New Year's Eve is one time of the year you can pretty much guarantee to see someone in the fountains — almost always fuelled by booze. There are plenty of videos to suggest that if you're so inclined to take a dip, no police officer is going to risk their dignity (like that one back in 1899), though they might want to have a word with you once you emerge.  

Then there are the football fans — always game, it seems, for a cheeky dip if their team's won something big. Like these Man United supporters in 1968:

Daily Mirror, 30 May 1968. With thanks to Trinity Mirror. Digitised by Findmypast Newspaper Archive Limited. All rights reserved.

It's a tradition that continues to today, most recently when French fans danced in the fountains following their team's win over Croatia in the 2018 World Cup Final. We'll admit; in a way it's a rather romantic tradition to uphold.

Still, our advice — and that of Westminster Council — best leave the Trafalgar Square fountains to those who definitely CAN swim in it: the pigeons. Oh, and the sea lions apparently:

Illustrated Police News, Thursday 26 January 1928.

We'll leave you with a fitting sign off from Dom Joly, in Trigger Happy TV.

By the way, there are plenty of fountains in London you CAN get wet in.