A beginner’s guide to London’s swimming ponds
London is one of those cities that seems to make you work hard to discover some of its best features.
The men’s swimming pond at Hampstead Heath is one of those hidden parts of London that you really need a bit of local knowledge to experience.
Synonymous with ‘cruising’ - for gay sex - Hampstead Heath is a vast green open space in North London. It takes a bit of planning to get to, but is relatively accessible via public transport.
What’s perhaps less well-known is that as well as being a hot-spot for outdoor hook-ups, Hampstead Heath is also a major centre for outdoor swimming - options include Parliament Hill Lido, the Mixed Pond, the Ladies’ Pond, and the Men’s Pond.
Large, freshwater swimming ponds, the Ladies’ and the Men’s ponds are unique in the UK as they’re the only life-guarded open-water swimming facilities that are open to the public every day of the year.
The Hampstead Heath ponds are fed by springs connected to the River Fleet. The ponds were originally dug in the 17th and 18th centuries as reservoirs to meet London’s growing demand for water.
The Men’s Pond has an incredibly social atmosphere - on a warm summer day, most of London’s queer guys seem to converge on the grassy bank adjacent to the entrance to the pond. Groups of friends congregate, strip down to their swim-briefs, share snacks and drinks, pose, promenade, people watch, and work on their tans.
Before entering the water, you pass through a changing facility that effectively acts as a barrier between the sunbathing area of the grassy bank, and the men’s pond itself. The changing facility is fairly basic - open to the elements, it’s a square slab of concrete floor surrounded by corrugated tin walls. There’s a row of open cold-water showers in one corner, a changing area to the right, and a nude sunbathing area to the left. The toilets are adjacent to the changing room - along a narrow path that runs beside the pond.
The nude sunbathing area is incredibly popular – at the first sign of a sunny day, it’s packed. Unless you’re there early, it’s difficult to find space to spread your towel and work on your all-over tan.
Once you’ve navigated your way through the changing facility, you enter the waters of the pond via a wooden jetty . You can slide discreetly into the water off the side of the jetty, but the preferred entrance is to dive in via the springboard - the more spectacular the dive, the more appreciative the audience of onlooking swimmers.
Having splashed your way into the water, you tend to bob around for a while, chatting to your friends, assessing the entrance dives of other swimmers, before making your way back to the wooden jetty for another dive into the pond.
Deciding what to wear for your swimming expedition to the ponds can be a bit tricky - you want something that looks presentable, shows off your assets, and will be eye-catching enough that you turn a few heads as you make your way to the water. However you don’t want to wear your most expensive swimwear, as the pond water can leave things looking a bit green and grimy. A pair of black swim-briefs is generally a sensible option, or possibly a pair of slutty swim-shorts from last season.
When you’ve sufficiently cooled off, or exhausted your diving repertoire, you then wash the pond water off under the bracingly-cold showers, and then head back out to the grassy bank to resume your sunbathing position with your friends.
Diving, swimming, tanning, and people-watching. There’s no better place to spend a sunny day in London.