Why I swim in the Men’s Ponds every week of the year


There are no special lanes, areas, no wi-fi hotspots, creature-comforts or VIP areas for the haves to lord it over the have-nots


Man walking towards men's ponds

'I take the same picture of the same scene every Monday.' Photo: Tim Sowula
‘I take the same picture of the same scene every Monday.’ Photo: Tim Sowula
When the temperature in the Highgate Ponds strikes 12 degrees, the ropes that enclose the swimming area move back – and once again a glorious expanse of fresh water opens up for all to enjoy.

The Heath is ours – common land owned by all, its status enshrined in an 1871 Act of Parliament. The three Highgate ponds and Parliament Hill were added in 1889 to protect it from development.

But just as importantly, the Highgate Ponds are a unique part of London life: whether you go on a winter morning or summer evening, they’re one of the few places in the city with virtually no rules, no artificial barriers; nothing to separate us from the raw elements of nature.

For the men’s pond, the only instruction in the changing area is that “Costumes must be worn at all times” – and even that’s just in one half, as there’s another area (which has weathered its own controversies) for those who simply must get that all over tan, darling. The sign – of course – gets cheerfully vandalised every year with words like ‘Flamenco’ or ‘Sequinned’ scratched above it.

The men's pond greets all-comers from every tribe. Photo: Stephen Emms
The men’s pond greets all-comers from every tribe. Photo: Stephen Emms
The Highgate ponds, the one place where London’s concreted-over river Fleet can come up for air, are a natural treasure, London’s coast, welcoming us from dawn till dusk. Off the Heath, we’re defined by how we dress, where we work, eat, rest and play – on it, and most fundamentally swimming in the pond, everyone’s equal. There are no special lanes, areas, no wi-fi hotspots, creature-comforts or VIP areas for the haves to lord it over the have-nots.

The men’s pond greets all-comers, from every tribe, rich and poor, young and old, straight and gay, and the small community of all-season swimmers represents a snapshot of north London – albeit the slightly eccentric variety who start their morning with a freezing plunge before heading off down the hill towards the smog.

William Blake, in his Jerusalem writings sometime between 1804 and 1820, wrote:

Pancras and Kentish Town repose
Among her golden pillars high,
Among her golden arches which
Shine upon the starry sky.
The Jew’s-harp House and the Green Man,
The Ponds where boys to bathe delight,
The fields of cows by William’s farm,
Shine in Jerusalem’s pleasant sight.

The place where Londoners come up for air. Photo: Ruth Corney
The place where Londoners come up for air. Photo: Ruth Corney
Too highfalutin? Here’s a more prosaic quote from Frank Bruno, in his 1996 autobiography ‘From Zero to Hero’, recalling his legendary Camden trainer George Francis’s unique methods: ‘He toughened my training routine, taking me on exhausting runs across Hampstead Heath which ended with brisk swims in the icy waters of Highgate Pond.’

So there you have it. From Blake to Bruno, poet to pugilist, where else in London has inspired both body and mind for nearly 200 years and is still more or less exactly the same as it was as when first founded? The 10m diving platform was removed from the men’s pond in 1982, but soaring off the spring board is still as popular as it was in 1895, when it hosted the country’s first National Graceful Diving Competition (as the first diving stage in England).

Swimming in the ponds is taking a dip into London’s history, its life-blood. Having just moved east with my young family, I still cycle from Leytonstone to the men’s pond every Monday morning, the only day I’m able to go. And – just for posterity – I take a picture of the same scene every Monday, like the shot above.

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More info on the Ponds here. Follow Tim on Twitter @timsowula

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  • bebo kobo profile

    Its a great blog with superb article and nice pictures too. I also liked so many blogs which are being published about the bebo kobo profile, which is so good and lovely.

  • Gabby

    Brilliant article! Have you seen the film “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”? You might just recognise where Gary Oldman’s character takes his morning swim!

  • Miles Newlyn

    had a lovely swim there this morning, thanks for writing this.

  • Tim

    Thanks all, glad you like the article. I’m pretty sure Gary Oldman takes a dip in the mixed pond. The women’s pond has been used in Spooks as well. They’re obviously a great place for clandestine meetings (Russian cultural institute is opposite the mens’ pond, coincidently… ) as you can’t wear a wire! But I just like the sunshine.

  • Katharine

    It is a nice article and I hate to quibble, but I would encourage users of the ponds to pay the voluntary donation – there’s a huge gap between the numbers of users and the income they raise and it costs money to keep the ponds going. Personally I consider buying an annual pass to be an investment in making sure the ponds continue to stay open!

    • Tim

      Thanks Katherine – I agree, people should certainly feel free to contribute to the maintenance of the ponds if they choose to. But it must be a choice, and there’s more than one way to encourage the Corporation of London to keep the ponds open for all.

  • April

    Looks like they’ve changed it – doesn’t say anything about it being an optional donation – or is this always how it looks but they never enforced it? http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/FC81B5F2-D2D6-4B71-B87C-DABF08D649BA/0/HamsteadHeathdiaryswimming.pdf

  • Katharine

    April, I think that may be the case as it wasn’t until the recent hoo-ha that I’d even been aware that it’s meant to be free. It certainly says, up at the ladies’ pond ‘You must pay to use these facilities’.

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