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
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:
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.
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'.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.