The Third Leader: The right to a cold bath in winter

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The Independent Online

To most of us, the idea of going for a swim in an open-air pond on a freezing winter morning sounds less than appealing. But to members of the Hampstead Heath Winter Swimming Club, it is clearly one of life's great pleasures. And yesterday's news that the club has won its High Court battle against the Corporation of London, and that its members will henceforth be allowed to swim - unsupervised - in the ponds of Hampstead Heath, is to be welcomed by everyone who cares about freedom.

To most of us, the idea of going for a swim in an open-air pond on a freezing winter morning sounds less than appealing. But to members of the Hampstead Heath Winter Swimming Club, it is clearly one of life's great pleasures. And yesterday's news that the club has won its High Court battle against the Corporation of London, and that its members will henceforth be allowed to swim - unsupervised - in the ponds of Hampstead Heath, is to be welcomed by everyone who cares about freedom.

This is a victory for common sense in the face of small-minded bureaucrats. Londoners have been swimming in these ponds for almost two centuries. John Constable depicted bathers in a painting of 1829. And in all that time, there has not been one recorded case of death or injury to a swimmer.

The dispute arose after the Corporation of London cut the number of hours when lifeguards would be available - and then refused Hampstead bathers permission to swim unsupervised in the morning. Safety regulations - which the corporation cited in support of its decision - ought to be respected. But all too often authorities hide behind them when they choose to curtail legitimate and long-standing public activities. What they are really doing is trying to make their own jobs easier.

The case was won by the bathers after a precedent was found in a ruling by Lord Hoffmann last year. He seemed to sum up the whole business perfectly: "If people want to dive into ponds or lakes, that is their affair."

Quite right. The water may be less than lovely, but if the bathers of Hampstead Heath want to swim in it, good for them.

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