Queer swimmers don bathing suits to ‘save’ London’s historic Hampstead Heath swimming ponds from ‘monstrous’ charges

Residents and campaigners from ‘Save Our Ponds Forum 71’ met on Hampstead Heath to protest against the mandatory charges. (Joshua Bratt)

Protesters packed the historic Hampstead Heath ponds in north-west London in an open challenge against city officials introducing “monstrous” compulsory charges for swimming.

Hampstead Heath’s various ponds have long offered queer Londoners a place to relax and socialise.

But when the City of London Corporation, the main governing body of the capital, moved to introduce charges earlier this year, it immediately fuelled alarm among LGBT+ activists and various other minority groups, to whom the ponds provide a crucial lifeline.

The mandatory charges, protesters said, have proved especially damaging to London’s LGBT+ community as much of the city’s vibrant queer scene has been closed by the pandemic.

Community group Save Our Ponds Forum ’71 – backed by all three Heath community swimming associations alongside LGBT+ campaigners – organised the protest on August 22, which saw participants throw on bathing suits and carry heart-shaped placards along the edge of the Boating Pond.

Residents and campaigners from Forum 71’. (Joshua Bratt)

Campaigners from Forum 71’. (Joshua Bratt)

One devastated demonstrator, Tom Frederic, told PinkNews: “Compulsory charges are like putting a chain around a beach when its whole value is in being a freely accessible natural open space.

“For a community disproportionately affected by mental health issues, the ponds are an essential public health resource,” the 43-year-old filmmaker said, saying he has used the Men’s Pond, popular with queer and Jewish men, for more than 20 years.

“And for the wealthy Corporation to radically commercialise them during a pandemic is cruel and will do massive harm,” he added.

“Where else do you see openly gay men sharing a space joyfully with Orthodox Jewish men?

“For them to take that away, and during a pandemic, is monstrous.”

City officials went ahead with charges despite pleas by Hampstead Heath community groups. 

As part of a package of coronavirus pandemic policies, the City of London Corporation introduced an online booking system for the various ponds in Hampstead Heath, stretching some 790 acres, to better regulate numbers due to social distancing guidelines.

It now costs most adult swimmers £4 (£2.40 concession) for a session, which must be booked at least a week in advance. As summer comes to an end the ponds will switch to a first-come, first-served basis.

The move was initiated despite various swimming groups and the Heath Consultative Committee all opposing the move

Anne Fairweather, chair of the City of London Corporation’s Hampstead Heath Management Committee, stressed in a statement to PinkNews that the ponds are “accessible to people of all abilities and backgrounds.

“We are providing subsidised swimming with fair pricing, with concessions bringing down the cost of adult swimming to as low as £2.40.”

She noted that the committee is in talks with local swimmers to draw out a plan for free or discounted swimming for “the elderly, disabled people, job seekers, students, children and volunteers”.

“And we are discussing how we can work with local authorities and the NHS to offer free and discounted swimming to groups who experience more exclusion or disadvantage than others.”