North London's Cultural Guide

Review: Taking the Waters – A Swim Around Hampstead Heath by Caitlin Davies

Some people might glance at Caitlin Davies’ new book and dismiss it as a niche interest publication.

In a way, it is. If you enjoy wild swimming, or live near the Heath, then the above is true, and you should love this book. But Davies’ triumph is to turn a homage to the three Highgate and Hampstead swimming ponds and the Lido into a wider social history of London and our leisure habits, documenting it not as a fossilised, dull academic subject but as a record that brings the treasure to life.

Beautifully illustrated by an incredible archive of photos from the 1900s, right up to Ruth Corney’s exquisite photos of the modern day Heath, what’s striking is how many people are smiling, in snow or sunshine. This is a happy book. Even if you hate swimming and have never even been to London, I’d defy anyone not to find some pleasure in the pages.


Davies charts the origins of the Heath and ponds right back to the 16th century, and explains how they became central to the emergence of swimming and diving as a recognised hobby and then sport in the UK. The ponds were integral therefore to the formation of the Royal Life Saving Society, and the Men’s pond with its high dive board swiftly got on the international map. If you think the Heath gets crowded now, in 1902, when King Edward VII was crowned, competitors came from the USA, Belgium, Sweden and France to compete in diving. This was watched by 30,000 people. Who needs an Olympic aquatic centre?

The book thrives through personal anecdotes and memories. Because the ponds have essentially changed little over time, Davies introduces a large and diverse cast of characters who’ve found some magic in the waters. It’s through their voices that Davies records the history of not just the ponds, but what the ponds and Lido actually means to Kentishtowners and those who travel much further to come for a swim. You’re not intruding on a community of frozen-water freaks, you realise how much they mean to London as a whole, how vital they are to our wider community, attracting over a quarter of a million visits a year.

There’s debate over the proposed dam-building project, planned for 2014 to protect local homes from a miniscule risk of flooding; and as the book closes with some portraits of the small community of winter swimmers, Davies neatly observes that whatever the outcome, people will continue to swim there through hell or high water.

Words: Tim Sowula
Photography: Ruth Corney (and archive)

Buy it from Owl Bookshop, or Daunt. Or if you must, Amazon.

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The award-winning print and online title Kentishtowner was founded in 2010 and is part of London Belongs To Me, a citywide network of travel guides for locals. For more info on what we write about and why, see our About section.