‘Culture has been wrecked’: swimmers lament changes to Hampstead ponds

Micah Sami spent her teenage years swimming in the Hampstead ladies’ pond. The freedom to access the water, or sit in the meadow, helped her cope whenever she wasn’t feeling great.

But since the City of Londen Corporation (CoLC) enforced charges for the first time in the history of the ponds last year – and raised them again earlier this year, a move now the subject of a legal challenge – it doesn’t feel the same.

“It’s like an iron fist has made its way into the space, it’s more controlled and there’s a barrier of access,” the 21-year-old says. “It’s removed that sacred femininity of the place, the freedom to feel unbothered and unwatched, to connect with nature without any mediation through payment. There’s this harshness about it now.

“It makes me feel sad. It feels painful to think about, but I feel alienated from the space. It really hurts my heart that that’s what’s happened.”

The bathing ponds have always been a hallowed and essential part of life for those who use them. They provide a unique escape from city life and many depend on the ponds for their mental and physical health.

But the experience has changed fundamentally in the last year. Many said the new regime had eliminated spontaneity and ruined the ambience and inclusive ethos of the ponds where everybody was equal. There’s a deep sense of a loss to the community.

“Lots of people have stopped going so their memories of the place aren’t sullied,” says activist Alix Lemkin, who co-convenes the Save Our Ponds campaign run by Forum ‘71, which has held protests against the charges all year. She swam in the ponds every day for 30 years and refuses to under the new regime, in solidarity with friends who have struggled during the pandemic and can’t afford to pay.

“People don’t like the atmosphere any more and many don’t see the people they used to see all the time. The culture has been wrecked," sy sê.

Traditionally, access to the ponds was free and swimmers could pay voluntary contributions. The CoLC maintains mandatory fees were necessary to sustainably fund upkeep of the ponds.

A survey conducted by the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association in January, before the second cost rise, found the charges had affected affordability for 58% van 600 respondents, more than half of whom swam less often as a result and 25% of whom could no longer afford to swim at all.

For the last 15 jare, Jamal Saad, 45, swam nearly every day in the men’s pond – after work, early in the morning, on a whim when cycling by. He knew exactly which faces he would see, and felt relaxed in nature, at ease with himself and a world away from his problems.

“That whole nature, the beauty of the place, has been destroyed. It’s not an escape any more. Now you feel you’re being watched – people checking you’ve paid, your membership, that you’re wearing your wristband. It’s restrictive rather than the freedom we used to have.”

The booking system and charges had priced him out, along with most of his friends. “It’s not the pond I love any more – it feels like a new club for certain people but not for everyone.”

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