An Aussie’s view of bathing on Hampstead Heath

‘The atmosphere is thick with unspoken rules and rituals’: Brisbane-dwelling visitor Steve Capelin recounts a memorable first visit to the men’s ponds

A diver in the Men's Pond. Photo: Ruth Corney
A diver in the Men’s Pond. Photo: Ruth Corney
I‘m on my holidays in London, spending two weeks with my sister-in-law, her partner and child in Kentish Town. I enjoy pretending to be a local, getting to know the rhythms of the community, and allowing the layers of my surroundings to reveal themselves.

Being an Aussie, I enjoy swimming. Hampstead Heath has a public lido lined with aluminium rather than tiles. The aluminium creates a beautiful shimmering effect making the water shine.

Unfortunately it doesn’t change the temperature; it’s freezing and it’s June. Nearby lies another swimming hole which seems more interesting.

I’ve got my mini micro fibre travelling towel and my budgie smugglers tucked under my arm and am heading for the men’s bathing – one of a series of spring-fed ponds fringing the northern edge of the park. From a distance it looks quaint, inviting and very cold.

My English brother-in-law thinks I’m crazy. He’s lived nearby for 20 years and has never swum here. It has a “reputation”, he confides. Doesn’t worry me. I’m an Aussie, and a stretch of water to me is something to be swum, no matter what the conditions or the warnings.

The entrance looks innocuous enough. Shaded by trees and lined with deep green English shrubs, a quiet path leads me towards the men’s change shed.

Immediately on pushing open the sprung entrance door I’m catapulted into the middle of a large open change room. In the middle stands a large man not unlike the Maharishi whom the Beatles adopted as their guru in the 60s. He is naked, wild hair mimicking Albert Einstein or Andrew Symonds, long and mostly grey. He’s not old, probably 40-something, with a beach ball for a stomach, and in his hand he holds a towel.

This is not unusual in a change room except in this case he’s standing dead centre, out of reach of clothing hanging above the slatted seats, and seemingly concerned only with the drying of his privates.

I hesitate, look right, left – avoiding eye contact with him – and choose a spot as close to my entry point as possible.

The sun shines into the room through the non-existent roof. It catches and lights up a second body stretched languorously on his white towel, reading a book and looking very relaxed. I take him for a posturing intellectual for he’s reading some obscure post-modernist text whose title makes little sense to me. At least Monsieur Foucault is wearing a pair of swimming trunks.

Meanwhile the Maharishi continues his ritual. He appears to be having an ongoing problem with his rising damp. I’m terrified that, at any moment, he’ll join me and fix me with his wild stare. And around the perimeter of the room are others either entering or exiting the swimming ritual. All bar one are not notable as they behave normally – for a men-only bathing pond changing room.

The one who catches my eye is a young Adonis, all blonde hair, smooth white skin and blue eyes. A living Michelangelo sculpture, a David reincarnated, and doesn’t he know it.

He’s wearing a tiny, low-slung hand towel. Wrapped around his waist, this drape – a size too small – shows off a slash of exposed thigh. Adonis distractedly wanders the change room floor, a distant lost look in his eyes, which I am avoiding. Eventually he takes up a position at my end of the pavilion and leans lazily against the wall bordering the nude sunbathing area.

The place where Londoners come up for air. Photo: Ruth Corney
The place where Londoners come up for air. Photo: Ruth Corney
In all I’ve probably been here for three full minutes but the atmosphere is thick with unspoken rules and rituals. I’m the outsider but there’s no point in hesitating, so in twenty seconds flat I’ve dropped my trousers, doffed my t-shirt and in one jump am out the door towards pond.

Out here there suddenly seems to be space and time: the sky is blue, the water a murky brown. Great for reflecting the drifting clouds above, but not offering the same invitation as the iridescent waters of my regular Queensland beach.

There are a few blokes swimming. Most laze about. One laps the perimeter of buoys marking out the limits for swimmers and the beginning of the fishing zone. And the lifesavers give me some confidence about my immediate physical safety, though I notice that the one device which is present is an old wooden row boat that might not reach me before I disappear forever into the black depths.

No sook when it comes to cold water, I admit to entering this deep dark pool rather tentatively. I use the ladder rather than the diving board and enter inch by careful inch.

I love the view, the foliage, the sense of isolation. I marvel at the tranquillity, and have the sense of being miles away from suburbia – but equally, and more intensely, knowing that I’m actually within view of St Paul’s Cathedral and central London.


  • Show Comments

  • Christine Lacki

    My son is a lifeguard on the Hampstead ponds and often works in the Mens’ pond. This is a beautiful and amazingly accurate description,which absolutely matches one’s of my son, It was a joy to read!

    • Steve Capelin

      Thanks Christine. I wrote this never quite expecting it to be read by Hampstead Heathians. I’m glad it captures something of the experience. Now for the Mixed Bathing Pond.

  • Martin

    Cripes, mate, sounds like it’s full of pooftahs up there!
    What’s the address again?

  • Tim

    Interesting account and a good read. Not sure if you could describe it as cold water though, it’s about 22 degrees in there. The Lido’s even warmer! Thought you Aussies were made of stronger stuff

    • Steve Capelin

      Tim, you’re not trying to tell me the Heath has heated pools are you? I’ve seen the thing frozen over so it drops in temp occasionally! I have to admit I may have chosen a bad week for my adventure (as opposed to this week). Now,we aussies are tough but when it comes to cold weather singularly unaccustomed to it. I’m from Brisbane where the av temp in winter is 23. I’ve worn a fleece all this last week in London while girls parade around parks in bikinis. I’m back in Malta today where the weather is refreshingly overwhelmingly hot and humid. I’m for a swim this afternoon in the Med.

  • Tim

    I swim there all year round. Maybe I’m a little crazy but I’d say the variation in temperature is part of the pleasure of it. I also swim in indoor pools but the constant 28 degree soup lulls you into a false sense of security. Outdoors, you really can measure your year and know your body from swimming in the ice in December/Jan to seeing the thermometer slowly creep up, being able to swim that little bit more every week, then the magic moment in Spring when the water breaks 12 degrees and they pull the ropes back so you get the full swimming area (that you’ve seen in summer), then that point when the pond water suddenly is warmer than the cold showers, a couple of great weeks in the Spring when the water is warmer than the air temperature in the early mornings, and then the glory of proper summer when after a hard day’s graft you can come up and jump in the water and it’s 21/22 degrees, perfect for just floating, staring up underneath the heavens. And then bring on August when you begin to notice the water dropping again. There are over 500 members of the Highgate Men’s Pond Association so I’m not the only nutcase. If you’re ever back this way, come up one morning around 8am when most of the regulars swim and you’ll see a very different crowd to the summer cruisers.

  • Fiona Stager

    Lovely piece of writing Steve. Glad you managed to avoid the breeding swans.