Early-bird swimmers fight for the right to their winter dip

Changing into his swimming trunks as dawn penetrates the November gloom, Robert Sutherland-Smith is angry, if still polite. "We simply ask that we should be allowed to do for the next 100 years what we have been doing here for the last 100," he says.

Changing into his swimming trunks as dawn penetrates the November gloom, Robert Sutherland-Smith is angry, if still polite. "We simply ask that we should be allowed to do for the next 100 years what we have been doing here for the last 100," he says.

He is referring to swimming in Hampstead Heath's ponds, a ritual performed all winter by a hardy band since the damming of the springs that formed London's Fleet river.

But, fearing prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive, the Corporation of London, which runs the ponds, has withdrawn its lifeguards until after first light, keeping the ponds shut until 8am in December and January, instead of the usual 7am. This is too late for the 40 or so bathers who swim throughout the winter - breaking the ice if necessary - to enjoy their dip and get to work on time.

They are expressing their indignation through the Hampstead Heath Winter Swimming Club, which has applied for permission to seek a judicial review of the decision to ban swimming before sunrise.

The swimmers have hired a leading barrister, Michael Beloff QC, a friend of Tony and Cherie Blair. He has suggested a compromise, in which the bathers would negotiate their own insurance and sign waivers agreeing the corporation would not be liable for them. But the corporation's barrister, Timothy Straker QC, concludes that, while this would leave the authority free from the threat of civil litigation, it would remain open to criminal prosecution.

On the Heath last week, there was resentment at officialdom's interference in a pursuit that many regard as not just harmless but positively healthy. With the water at a bracing 12C (53F), a steady stream of bathers arrived as the sun rose. "Sometimes, in the winter, when the world seems a very gloomy place, you can go for a swim and feel wonderful. You come to terms with nature," says Mr Sutherland-Smith, a financial journalist. "In the morning it is used by people who have to go to work. Some of them are highly paid professionals, but have the widest range of people. The local rag and bone man is a regular," he said.

Swimmers talk of the "tremendous buzz" of "feeling alive", even of a "spiritual benefit" after taking the waters. Nine out of 10 say they never suffer a winter cold. The last two fatalities occurred way back in 1977, and devotees say there are real and accepted medical benefits to the swim.

There are rumblings among the bathers, who have already fought off attempts to alter opening times, that the corporation wants to close the ponds by stealth. Last year, the corporation overspent its £5.5m Heath budget by £130,000 and threatens to do so this year by £150,000.

Its spokesman, Jon Logie, denies the claim. He says it is too dangerous to swim in the dark and the ice: "These people are well connected and highly articulate. They have the time and funds to put their case, which they have done effectively."

But how does an outdoor winter dip really feel? The Independent took the dawn plunge. Our conclusion: a pleasant enough pastime ... for brass monkeys.

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