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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 December, 2004, 07:43 GMT
Making a splash on Christmas Day
By Jane Mower
BBC News, London

Swimmer in pond
Chris Ruocco took his first dip at the age of 10
While most people were tucking into turkey, mince pies and mulled wine on Christmas Day, some were taking part in a freezing tradition.

Despite the spine-chilling temperatures Chris Ruocco, 60, and his friends went swimming in Hampstead ponds.

"Christmas swims are very sociable events with wine and mince pies and I take my trumpet along and play carols by the side of the pond," he said.

"It really makes you feel good and certainly wakes you up."

As a member of the Highgate Lifebuoys he is one of a few who swim in the north London ponds all year round.

The group, founded in 1903, run a Christmas Day race which has only been cancelled twice when the ice was too thick to break.

Nothing ever stops us. It's worse when the air temperature is much colder than the water temperature and there's a film of ice on the water
Mr Ruocco
In the winter of 1964 Mr Ruocco said the swimmers were undeterred by the conditions.

"It was solid ice so we had to swim in an area 20ft by 10f," he said.

"Nothing ever stops us. It's worse when the air temperature is much colder than the water temperature and there's a film of ice on the water.

"When you dive in, it doesn't matter how quick you are, by the time you've gone under the water the ice forms over the hole again before you come up."

The festive event remains ever popular, with about 200 people taking part last year. But health and safety regulations mean they can no longer swim when it is icy.

Swimmer in pond
People have been bathing in the ponds since the 1860s

Up to 200,000 people use the ponds every year which have been a popular spot for swimmers since the 1860s.

Mr Ruocco began swimming in the pond at the age of 10, when he was a member of the St Pancras Boxing Club.

"I loved it so much I used to go there instead of school," he said.

Mr Ruocco now owns a Tailor's shop in Kentish Town, north London, and has dressed the likes of Wham, Bananarama and Spandau Ballet, but continues to swim everyday.

"It's beautiful, you can swim and see the sky which is the most beautiful thing you can do," he said.

But this "cherished" tradition is under threat.

The Corporation of London, which manages the ponds, is proposing to charge an entry fee or close one or all three to cut costs.

Lifeguard
Lifeguards at the pond cost the corporation 500,000 a year

The corporation spends up to 500,000 a year on lifeguards, water quality testing, control equipment and maintenance costs.

The Hampstead Heath management committee said the ponds are a "wonderful and cherished tradition" but are their most expensive recreational facility.

Mr Ruocco said: "People have swum here for 100 years, most days, in all weathers, and we are fiercely proud of our tradition and we aim to keep it that way.

"They shouldn't even be considering closing the ponds, this is the last thing they should do."

The Corporation of London management committee is due to meet on 21 February to decide the future of the ponds.




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