Thinking allowed — 17 August 2012

One little published event in the Olympics was the 10km Open Waters Swimming in which competitors swam around a pond. We were 4th in the women’s (just missing the bronze by less than a second) and 5th in the men’s. The event was held on The Serpentine in Hyde Park, the same waters where on Christmas Day a group of intrepid swimmers break the ice and ignoring any broken bottles, submerged shopping trolleys or contracting leptospirosis appear on television in this annual event.

Swimming in open water has been practised for many years and one of London’s most famous is Hampstead Heath’s three bathing ponds which has welcomed swimmers for over 150 years.

In the true British tradition of prudery mixed with a degree of eccentricity the ponds are segregated.

In the male only pond with its secluded sylvan fenced enclosure nudity is de rigueur amongst the regulars – the serious swimmers, chess players and weight-lifters for whom this is a sort of club. Out on the springboards and in the water, costumes are required. There are no longer any high boards – a sign of these cautious times.

As the Ladies Pond is highest up the hill and benefits from being nearest to the natural springs in Kenwood it has by far the cleanest water. It’s hidden by an expanse of sprawling foliage to hide the ladies modesty.

There is also another pond designated for mixed bathing.

The ponds were originally dug as reservoirs by the Hampstead Water Company in the 17th and 18th centuries from the original malarial marsh which was then drained, before falling into disuse during Victorian times.

In 2004 the City of London Corporation tried to close the ponds on the grounds that they posed a health risk to swimmers amid local protest those plans were abandoned.

Now the ponds may close soon to enable 10ft high dams to be constructed. The City of London claims thousands of lives are at risk should the existing dams burst after heavy rainfall.

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