Today I went and swam in the Kenwood Ladies' Pond at Hampstead Heath for the first time - I can't believe really that I've never done it before. It's not that I'm against open air swimming - I grew up swimming in rivers, lakes, the sea and the tendency now to call this "wild swimming" I find a bit ridiculous. Unless it's in the Arctic or somewhere like that, surely it's just "swimming"?!
I went with my parents so we originally headed for the mixed pond but it had closed today for the winter, so we divided up. Not so fun for Dad to be on his own but Mum and I got to swim in the ladies' pond which is much more famous. I don't have any photos because we didn't want to take too many valuables with us (there are no lockers) but you can find plenty if you follow the links or google the ponds, variously known as the Highgate Ponds or Hampstead Ponds - officially the mixed one is the Hampstead Pond, the men's is the Highgate Pond and the women's is the Kenwood Ladies' Pond - as listed on Camden Council website anyway.
The Heath itself is amazing. It's not as big, for example, as Richmond which is my nearest really big park, but at 320 hectares it's still pretty impressive. We walked through about a quarter to a third of it this morning and I couldn't believe how much more stretched up to the north west beyond where we were. Then of course I've heard of the amazing view from Parliament Hill and seen it in films but its not the same as going up there yourself. We got the Overground to Gospel Oak in the south east corner (you can also go to Hampstead Heath, or Hampstead, Golders Green or even Tufnell Park on the tube are all near various parks of the heath) and walked up past the Lido before realising the mixed pond was on the other side from the others, then it was closed, so we came back... so, not knowing the park very well, we went up and down Parliament Hill twice, and with the sun blazing down were a little hot and bothered by the time we finally sorted out which pond was where. We did manage to admire the rather hazy landscape of London, from Canary Wharf barely visible in the distance, to St Paul's (the view of which was ruined rather by the Shard now directly behind it), to the top of Victoria Tower (part of the Houses of Parliament) and the Post Office Tower. Apparently the reason why it's called Parliament Hill might be because Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators went there to make their plot. I am slightly sceptical.
The ponds themselves were lovely. The Highgate and Kenwood ponds are on the East side of the park with other ponds - a model boating pond, a duck pond, etc - between and above them. Originally the ponds were a series of reservoirs for drinking water. The entrances are all on the side nearest the edge of the park (we did a bit more walking around them) The men's is bigger but with some areas roped off for fishing, and it has a grass area by the entrance which has been adopted as part of the pond area, where lots of men were sunbathing. There is also apparently a rather small bit of grass inside for nude sunbathing.
The women's is more secluded with bushes and trees all around, and has a larger meadow where mobiles are banned and a smaller grassy slope where plenty of women were sunbathing topless too. It costs £2 (or £1 concession) but you're trusted to pay, and then there are changing rooms, mainly open but a few cubicles, toilets and cold showers (and a rather charming arrangement with a hot tap and a basin if you want a warmer wash). There are lifeguards on duty and life rings moored sporadically around the pond to clutch whenever you need a rest, as the pond is deep and there is really nowhere else to get out other than the jetty at the entrance. It's pretty cold, even on a hot day (the temperature starts to drop off after August) and we both had to persuade ourselves a little bit, but once in, it was wonderful! The atmosphere was peaceful, with people chatting, exchanging remarks about how cold it was as they swam past, the ducks joining us in the slightly cloudy water (the quality isn't bad - reports can be found on the City of London website), and all enclosed by greenery. Afterwards we had our picnic by the boating pond until the heat overcame us. And all in late September.
So, many thanks to Ella for a fantastic suggestion! The ponds were threatened with closure a few years ago and there was uproar - I'm not surprised. Definitely one to love.