Winter swimmers fight for the right to start their day with a dawn dip

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Most people could think of better reasons to pick a fight with the authorities than the right to an early-morning dip in freezing waters.

But that is the issue exercising a group of lawyers, teachers, writers and journalists whose dawn constitutional in the ponds of Hampstead Heath, north London, is threatened by the Corporation of London. Fearful for the safety of swimmers in the darkness, the corporation is to shift the opening hours of the male and female ponds to a later time in winter. But bathers have enlisted a solicitor to help their fight for the right to brave the waters first thing.

At 7am yesterday the swimmers were there as usual. Jane Shallice, 60, a retired deputy headteacher from Archway, and Mary Cane, 56, a writer who has visited the pond for two decades, extolled the virtues of the austere regime. "It gives you a great buzz," Ms Cane said. "It is breathtaking to stare at a pink and purple morning sky while doing the back-stroke."

Margaret Hepburn, 82, who chairs the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association, said: "Even if you do a short lap, It leaves you feeling incredibly invigorated. It has been described as a spiritual experience by many."

Frances Cairncross, 59, a journalist at The Economist who has been visiting the pond in winter for three years, said the swimmers led "fairly demanding lives" and could only squeeze in a quick swim at 7am. "My family thinks I ammad but I find it is such a wonderful start to the day and it is the only time I can fit it in," she said.

Marc Hutchinson, a solicitor at Slaughter and May, who is representing the United Swimmers' Association, said they were willing to accept personal liability in case of accidents. Mr Hutchinson is negotiating with the corporation over the self-regulation of swimming, without the minimum two lifeguards.

A corporation spokesman said the Hampstead Heath Committee would make a decision next week. "We are hoping to open exactly when it gets light and we are also looking at theissues around self-regulation," he said.