The ponds - especially the swimming ponds - hold a special place in the hearts of Heath lovers. For years the ponds have been used for swimming, ice skating, model boating and other activities, and while they rarely ice over these days the ladies’, mens’ and mixed swimming ponds are as popular as ever. They attract big crowds on hot weekend days, so its best to get there early. See here for more information about visiting for a swim.
The Model Boating Pond in the Highgate chain has hosted model boating matches as far back as 1854, when ‘Highgate youths’ raced their homemade yachts named things like Mosquito, Salamander and Rover.
creating the heath’s ponds
Authorisation for ponds was first given in 1589 by Henry VIII, but the ponds didn’t appear until 1692 when the City Corporation leased the springs on Hampstead Heath to William Paterson & Partners, who formed the Hampstead Water Company. The Company established a string of reservoirs known as the Hampstead Ponds to supply water to London. Hampstead ponds were made by damming Hampstead Brook, a tributary of the Fleet, while Highgate Ponds were formed from a smaller tributary to the east, complete by around 1810. The Vale of Health Pond dates from 1777 – it used to be a swamp, home to frogs, mosquitos and a harness-maker called Samuel Hatch, his cottage and workshop (and for this reason was known as Hatches Bottom for many years). It was turned into Vale of Health Pond in 1777 by the Hampstead Water Company. Leg of Mutton Pond on West Heath was probably dammed as part of an 1816 relief plan to employ the poor, following the Napoleonic wars.
Some of the ponds came from digging for sand; for years the Heath’s sandy soils supplied builders and iron founders across the city. Branch Hill Pond, on the edge of West Heath and painted by Constable in 1821, was formed this way. There were protests against digging, which was considered a ‘destruction of the common’, and exploitation for sand on the Heath ceased when it became public property until 1939, when large pits were dug near the Vale of Health and on Sandy Heath to fill sandbags to support the war effort. Those pits were filled with rubble at the end of the war. Most of the ponds were created through a process called ‘puddling’, where clay was brought in and trampled on by sheep and cattle to turn it into an impervious layer. Several older ponds are no longer there - Branch Hill Pond is now grassland, and a small pond on the Heath edge opposite Hampstead Heath overground station was drained in 1892 at the request of the residents of South Hill Park, to provide a grassy approach to the Heath.