Save Hampstead Ponds
Different strokes.
The woman who runs the Hampstead Heath committee meets a better class of heckler when she stirs up a spot of pond strife.

You wouldn't think a meeting about three murky, reed-strewn ponds would attract many people on a hostile January night. But here on the stone steps of Hampstead Town Hall under a canopy of umbrellas, an impatient crowd of about 300 people can barely wait for just such a meeting to start. More precisely, they are waiting to protest against the Corporation of London's threat to close Hampstead Heath's swimming ponds.

Ranging in years from middle-aged to ancient, they wave or raise eyebrows in supportive acknowledgement as they file into the auditorium. There are so many that scores are cast out into the night because there isn't enough room inside.
On a platform at one end of the hall is the woman they have come to see: Catherine McGuinness, chairman of the Corporation of London's Hampstead Heath Committee, the body that has decided it is too expensive to keep the ponds open for swimmers. McGuinness exchanges quiet words with the four other members on the panel beside her.

Soberly dressed, she has a neat Julie Andrews-esque red crop and the clear, clipped diction you might expect of a local bureaucrat. And for the first five minutes of her speech on Heath budgetary concerns, the crowd are everything you might expect too. Until the heckling begins. "You're boring us to death!" grandmother Mena Chapman shouts impatiently. "We've heard all this before!" booms George Stern, a portly man with a plummy voice accustomed to public speaking.

McGuinness, unfazed, continues to explain how the Heath's budget is in the red by £330,000 this year. Cuts to the areas of conservation, gardening, constabulary and the ponds will be considered and, she warns, "The savings that have to be made will be painful."

The heckling starts again with a loud, sarcastic "Ha, ha, ha" from the stalls.
McGuinness trots out more figures: the ponds cost £500,000 a year in lifeguard costs alone, and that money could be used to improve the children's zoo at Golder's Hill Park or the Parliament Hill playground. "But we have always made clear that swimming in the ponds is a cherished tradition," she says, rather uncomfortably, and then swiftly hands over to the increasingly agitated floor.

A microphone is passed to representatives of the recognised swimming groups. They are astoundingly eloquent but quick to correct the misconception that pond-swimmers are a bunch of luvvy Hampsteadites. "I'm very unhappy that in the corridors of Guildhall, some people have been depicting the swimmers of Hampstead Heath as a collection of fat-cat lawyers, rich enough to afford swimming pools in their own back gardens," says a middle- aged man from the United Swimmers Association.

"Catherine McGuinness and superintendent Simon Lee should be dismissed. That would save the £300,000," arch heckler Chapman says. "Resign, Resign, Resign!" a chant starts up and there is a trammelling of feet in the stalls. McGuinness manages a tight- lipped smile.

Disgust is expressed at the possibility of charging an entry fee and the ensuing paraphernalia of turnstiles and fencing. Several speakers champion the fact that free swimming in the Hampstead ponds stretches back to 1745, and that it is a natural resource and not one provided by the corporation, which took over management of the heath in 1989. "It is a pond, not a swimming pool!" shouts an irate lady.

Poet and Financial Times columnist Harry Eyres stands up to draw attention to the Hampstead Heath Act of 1871. It says the heath should remain "forever open, unenclosed and un-built-on": cue raucous applause.

As the emotional temperature rises, so does that of the auditorium. People peel off sweaters and fan themselves with their petitions. "The swimming ponds are part of my soul. And if you close them, you will be ripping apart my soul!" yells an exuberant woman with an Australian accent.

The appeal of the ponds extends far beyond the parameters of north-west London, it appears: Clare Doyle, a Serpentine swimmer lending support, says she has heard that the petition had made it to St Petersburg.

McGuinness rarely responds to the points made, but frequently turns to whisper to her panel, for which she is thoroughly castigated by the crowd. "So rude!" shouts a wiry female swimmer. "Absolutely!" chimes in her neighbour.

It is clear that everything boils down to the need for more cash. Talk turns to the idea that the Corporation should simply ask the City of London for more of it. "I suggest we go to Guildhall in our swimming costumes and ask them to change their constitution," an enraged woman in her forties rallies.

The meeting is officially closed at 9.05pm and the crowd is assured that all representations will be considered before a budget proposal meeting at Guildhall on February 21. With that, many of the campaigners purchase "save the ponds" T-shirts, and, not afraid to wear them, shuffle into the night.