On Hampstead Heath

Wherever you visit, it’s good to strike a balance between being a tourist and acting like a local. So while we almost always visit the big attractions – the Acropolis, Pompeii, the Brandenberg Gate – we also like to get our hair cut, hear local history from our landlord’s granny, and head for former East German lakes.

This time, I thought we’d try a spot of outdoor swimming, and the heat wave made it such an appealing idea that we threw over our day in Greenwich in favour of a day in and out of the water. There are several lidos in London, but I wanted something a little wilder, and a quick search brought us to the clay pits on Hampstead Heath.

Now, I’d never even been to Hampstead before, but it turns out that as well as the village and heath they’ve filled in some old clay pits to create natural swimming pools. We were a little anxious about whether we’d get in – surely in a city the size of London demand would be overwhelming – and I had prepared the children for disappointment and had Plan B up my sleeve. To our delight we were greeted by a lovely old man who charged me £2, checked several times that the children were good swimmers, and let us in immediately. The little area of land around the jetty was busy, but not so much so that we couldn’t find a spot to spread our towels, and huge pond had far more space than I’ve seen at any swimming pool. Clearly the rest of London was cooling off elsewhere.

Swimming at Hampstead Heath reminded me of nothing as much as the day we spent at an old East German swimming lake in Berlin. Virtually cost-free, full of locals and with only the most basic of amenities, it is my sort of swimming. The girls and I walked into the women’s changing area, which is fenced off for privacy, to find a wrinkly old woman stretched out on a bench, completely starkers, soaking up the sun. Nobody was fussing about their hair, there was no overpowering waft of deoderant sprays or whoosh of hand-dryers. Just lots of people enjoying the good weather and staying cool in the water.

We went swimming in pairs, and I went in with each of the younger ones, to keep an eye on them. The water is so opaque with clay that you cannot see your own hands in the water, and it would be impossible to see someone who’d gone under. The lifeguards were excellent: friendly and sensible, and Ilse’s age and swimming ability was checked before she was allowed in. We had a lovely time in the water, swimming out to this patch of flowers or that, practising dolphin or backstroke or just skulling along. Every so often we’d get out to warm up, or swap between those reading on the bank and whoever’s turn it was in the water.

I love swimming outdoors. Whether in the sea, a river, a lake or a pond, it is one of my favourite things to do. I love being in the water – any water – but water without chlorine and surrounded by plants, rocks, sand or simply the horizon is such a treat. We’ve got a lot more outdoor swimming lined up this summer, along the coast of Devon and Cornwall, but before I’d even rinsed the silt from my hair I’d planned another day out, in and around the Nidd. We all have our favourite memories of our sojourn in London, but mine is without a doubt the day we spent swimming on Hampstead Heath.

Madeleine

Do you swim outdoors? Is there somewhere close to you where you can? One day, I’m going to live by the sea again, but I’m glad I’ve discovered rivers and ponds too, because I wouldn’t have were the ocean still on my doorstep.

2 thoughts on “On Hampstead Heath”

  1. What a wonderful holiday memory. I spent a semester abroad in London while a college student and lived in Hampstead. The weather was too cold and rainy to swim on the heath, but I made use of my swimsuit that spring in Greece. Now, I wish I had braved the weather to swim in the silky clay pool. I love your description of the quirky people who joined in your adventure.

    1. I will definitely be going back when I’m next in London (and it’s warm!). We’ve had some great swimming this week in Cornwall, including a final dip in the shadow of Tintagel Castle before heading home this evening. We were in Greece last summer and swam almost every day – we even found places to swim while we were in Athens. Summer just isn’t summer without lots of outdoor swimming. I hope it wasn’t too chilly when you swam in the spring! X

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