A muggy midsummer's day in the city. You long for the cool of a leafy green woodland, to wander down shady paths to the edge of a shimmering pool under trailing willows and dive gently into the refreshing depths. Paradise? Hampstead Ponds, actually.
Situated in the nearly eight hundred acres of ancient parkland that is beautiful Hampstead Heath, these freshwater ponds were originally reservoirs dating from the 16th century and have been attracting bathers since as far back as the 1800's.
Three of the more than twenty-five ponds of Hampstead Heath are dedicated to swimming, with a ladies' and men's (popular with the gay crowd) and one for mixed bathing. And summer is not the only season these intrepid swimmers take their dips - both single sex ponds are open year round (if you're tempted to try it you might check out the cold water swimming guidelines).
The ponds are managed by the City of London Corporation and in 2004 were nearly closed (it was claimed they were too expensive and posed a health risk) but this was challenged - successfully - by the swimmers in the High Court. As a result the ponds remain open, though now a small charge is made for their maintenance.
For those who want to enjoy the water without actually getting in there's a pond for model boating and another that's a wildlife preserve, along with a range of acivities from athletics to tennis to walking on the Heath itself.
Though it's just four miles from Trafalgar Square, a visit to Hampstead Heath means stepping into a rural landscape that feels far removed from the metropolis in which it lies, and nothing can compare to dip in London's natural spa. Take the plunge.