A concrete, fallow industrial site does not call for a wild bathing paradise. But a community group hopes to turn the east London site – currently occupied by Thames Water – into what is believed to be the capital’s first new wild swimming ponds since the creation of Hampstead Ponds in 1777.
Under the proposed plans, residents want to buy the state-owned 5.68-acre site on the polluted River Lea in Waltham Forest and transform it into a “brownfield rainforest,” with two free-to-use pools, community spaces, an anaerobic digester, a cafe and a Make and Repair Hub.
East London Waterworks Park’s two ponds, measuring about 1,600 square meters and 1,400 square meters, would be fed by rainwater cleaned of reeds and aquatic plants, and the site would be water and solar powered and have a capacity of 1,000 people per day . “There’s a real desire to swim in the open water to reconnect with nature, and there just isn’t enough capacity to accommodate that desire right now,” said the project’s chair, Abigail Woodman, who works at educational publishing is working.
The idea came from members of the community after government plans to build two free schools on the site, which they bought from Thames Water, failed. After a public gathering three years ago, fast swimming became a popular idea. “For the community, it’s about embodying hope because it can feel pretty bleak what’s happening right now,” said Holzman.
“The point here is to say that we can improve things, we have the capacity and the power to do so if we come together and work hard.”
Amid record temperatures and drought, demand for wild swimming has continued to rise this summer following surge in interest during the pandemic. But with pollution warnings and limited capacity at a small number of dedicated locations, particularly in cities, plus entry fees, options are limited.
William Upton, chairman of the City of London Corporation‘s Hampstead Heath Management Committee, said “a record number of swimmers” have used the Mixed Bathing Pond, the Highgate Men’s Bathing Pond and the Kenwood Ladies’ Bathing Pond, each of which regularly attracts more than 1,500 swimmers dress a day. The ponds were originally created as reservoirs in the 17th and 18th centuries before some were later converted to bathing pools.
Other wild bathing sites, West Reservoir in Hackney and the Beckenham Place Park lake in Lewisham, have since opened but the new project expects its ponds to be the first in centuries.
So far, residents have raised more than £210,000 in crowdfunding in just a few weeks. The target is £500,000 by October 28 when the project is due to move to the next phase. Assuming the purchase goes through and appropriate planning permission is granted, it is hoped that the ponds will open to volunteers in 2027 and to the public two years later.
With a child poverty rate of more than 42% in Waltham Forest, free use of the facility is a key aspect of the project.
“We will separate our ability to generate income and ensure we can maintain the site from their use so that it is open and inclusive for all,” Woodman said. “So a world run for man and nature.”
The ponds not only evoke positive associations with physical and mental health, but also draw attention to water consumption in times of dwindling supplies by displaying real-time data on how they are using water.
“It’s very easy when you live in a city to be disconnected from what’s going on with our water supply,” Woodman said. “The water suppliers say that we have little water. but it still comes out of the tap.”
Ed Accura, co-founder of the Black Swimming Association (BSA) and producer of the Blacks can’t swim Documentaries, said the project would be a positive asset to the area, but for many people, swimming doesn’t feel “relatable”. Research by Sport England found that 95% of black adults and 80% of black children in England and 93% of Asian adults and 78% of Asian children do not swim.
He called for water safety education to be a top priority, saying that so far more than 100 people have taken part in the BSA’s pilot water orientation and training program in Hackney and there are plans to expand it across the country.
Accura, 56, who grew up in Tottenham, said he would have been “completely indifferent” to the creation of new wild swimming ponds a few years ago. When he stepped into a pool for the first time, he felt scared. “Since then I’ve been learning to swim and I’m getting more and more used to going in the water. I feel relieved.”
Woodman said the project plans to work with young people to create a water safety campaign that targets their peers. The scheme is backed by Shirley Rodrigues, London’s Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy, who said it was an “excellent example of community-led action”.
She said the mayor, Sadiq Khan, was “Committed to bringing nature closer to Londoners and revitalizing the city by protecting, restoring and enhancing its green and blue spaces… It is vital that proposals such as these add value to the local area and that, through the creation of new parks and Open space in construction helps create a better London for all.”
The Department of Education, which is said to be responsible for selling the site, and Waltham Forest Council said they could not comment on the proposed plans at this time.
Thames Water, which met with East London Waterworks Park in July, said it was “interested in supporting any stakeholder who wants to develop wild swimming areas”.