The Women’s, Men’s and Mixed bathing ponds on Hampstead Heath are world-renowned gems for wild swimming – cherished by a large and diverse community of visitors, many of whom swim in all seasons and across the decades to maintain their mental and physical health. Some come simply in search of quiet solitude in nature; others for company, solace, sanctuary or respite from caring.
The unique setting, atmosphere and ethos of the bathing ponds – open to all with voluntary donation – are now being destroyed by the City of London Corporation’s new and heavy-handed regime of mandatory payment that employs intrusive technology and threatens fines or lifetime bans for anyone who tries to swim without paying.
By making these changes the Corporation has brought to an abrupt end nearly 200 years of being able to freely access these historic ponds.
Swimming remained entirely free until 2005 when the Corporation first imposed charges. In the face of fierce opposition, a ‘self policed’ system was brought in with a suggested donation of £2 (£1 concession), payable using cash at machines that broke frequently and have never been updated to keep pace with cashless payment technology.
In March 2020, the Corporation decided to replace this voluntary arrangement with compulsory tickets priced at £4.00 (£2.40 concession) – an increase of 100% (150%) on previous voluntary donations.
Forum ’71 believes compulsory charging for entry to swim at the ponds contravenes the 1871 Hampstead Heath Act and can be viewed as the ‘enclosure’ of our common heritage by the Corporation to extract ‘rent’ .
Forum ’71 also believes the new charging regime traduces a principle set out in the Law of Property Act 1925 (Section 193) that gives any member of the public a right ‘to access freely’ common land like the Heath ‘for air and exercise’.
The Corporation’s decision to impose the new charging regime went against the majority advice of the Hampstead Heath Consultative Committee – a statutory body that for 30 years has never seen its’ advice disregarded.
As a consequence, regular swimmers must now expect to find £624 per year to visit three times a week – an increase of 500% on the cost of purchasing an annual £125 season ticket (and the equivalent of £1458 to swim every day of the year).
During the coronavirus lockdown, the Corporation introduced an online booking system that offers tickets for a time limited swim (of just one hour). All children under 16 are denied entry, even those who have swum regularly in previous years. Season tickets have also been frozen.
At a time of acute health and financial emergency, the new charges disregard collective historic rights of access, are elitist and exclude many people from visiting the ponds.
The costs of maintaining other natural spaces on Hampstead Heath are not passed on to other visitors. Forum ‘71 is concerned that compulsory charges for the bathing ponds may usher in further commercialisation of other activities such as dog walking and children’s play.
Read report by Geoff Goss – Men’s Pond committee member – on the resistance to enclosure of the ponds.
Reproduced by kind permission of The Land Magazine