Highgate Ponds – an early autumn swim

“I went out along the jetty to the pond. It is deep, up to twenty feet, and the water is green, smooth and cold. It is entirely natural, and samples are regularly tested for purity. It was icy cold, and I swam fast in a big circle round the buoys the lifeguards use to moor rowing boat, past an unconcerned coot or two, and back to the ladder, feeling what they call here ‘braced’”.

Highgate Men’s pond, which sits nestled in an eastern corner of Hampstead Heath, is a century-old institution. Protected from development since being added to a parliamentary act covering the entire Heath in 1889, swimming here is a daily ritual for some and an indulgent midweek activity for others (read me and my fellow wild swimming acolyte Joe).

Arriving on a warm, late summer/early autumn afternoon, only one swimmer drags himself around the roped perimeter of the swimming area as we walk across the Heath, locking up Joe’s bike before paying our voluntary £2 fee. The latter has been the centre of some dispute this year, with the City of London attempting to make the charge compulsory, much to the chagrin of regular users and locals (as this excellent piece from The Kentishtowner details). Roger would doubtless be appalled.

When he arrived here as part of his outdoor swimming tour of London, for one of Waterlog’s final chapters, it was November, the leaves falling and the water temperature dropping. He would have most likely strolled in for free. But, weather aside, today he would find it much the same. The ‘Nude Sunbathing’ sign, the spring diving board at the end of the concrete jetty, the buoys marking out a huge swimming area.

Eschewing the spring board (I’m more Gareth Bale then Tom Daley when it comes to diving, sadly), I lower myself down the runged ladder and into the chilly water. It’s 19C according to the blackboard in the changing rooms, but as I dip my head under the green water, the sun goes in and a distinct chill comes over the water. I strike out for a far buoy, a Great Crested Grebe bobbing along in the distance. I find myself following Roger’s formula, swimming as fast as possible between buoys, completing a couple of huge laps before demisting my goggles while lying prostrate over a floating safety ring.

The water here is delightful. Fed by the now covered River Fleet, Highgate Ponds has a silky, heavy quality unlike the River Granta, where I swam a couple of weeks ago. You have to work hard to push through it, but it rewards long strokes with much-needed bodily warmth. Sadly, the latter isn’t in evidence after we haul ourselves out of the pool. We shiver as a local flies off the end of the board, his legs splashing down as we look on and offer a small round of applause.

The Men’s Pond might not offer quite the same seclusion as the Mixed Pond across the Heath. But there’s a greater sense of community, of people coming here to escape London and its noise and grime, even if just for half an hour. It’s a magical spot.

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7 Comments on “Highgate Ponds – an early autumn swim

  1. Cheers Mark, much appreciated. Magnitude of it is slowly dawning on me, as is the fact I’ve got it going a bit late in the summer. Off wetsuit shopping tomorrow to stave off the chill.

  2. This is a wonderful idea and I’m deeply envious of you. There are some wonderful places to swim in here and you’re going to have a blast. Good luck!

    • Thanks Tom, I’m really excited about the whole adventure. Off wetsuit shopping today, I fear this weekend just gone may have been my last au naturel swim for a few months.

  3. From the Standard, 21 Sep

    A vicious breed of crayfish has invaded Hampstead Heath ponds and begun nipping swimmers.

    The red swamp crayfish, known for its aggressive behaviour and long claws, is multiplying so fast that 5,000 of them are believed to be in the pools.

    Bathers in the men’s pool, where many swim naked, have been advised to wear clothes.

    Regular Peter McCafferty, 43, said: “I’ve been seeing more and more crayfish being pulled out and I’m very wary of them.

    “I’ve had a couple of nips on my toes in the past few months. But some people have been nipped in altogether more sensitive places, which doesn’t bear thinking about.”

  4. Great idea for a blog. I also connected by Caught by the River, and only started reading Waterlog a few days ago ( I’m still in the Scilly Isles) from searching Roger Deakin after seeing the beautiful Dr Alice Roberts’ BBCFour film a month or so ago. It also got me ‘wild’ swimming although my local open water (lac Léman) is a bit big to consider a waterhole. Best wishes.

    • Thanks very much. The Alice Roberts doc is essential viewing, a wonderful bit of TV. Enjoy Waterlog!

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