Algae, swimmers and other varieties of pond life
By Julia Stephenson

First published in the 1st August 2005 edition of The Independent
I grew up in the gin `n jag belt in the 70's when going green was something that happened to your hair after swimming in a kidney shaped pool without a cap. In those hedonistic days my mother and her mahogany tanned pals baked on flowery sunloungers, consoling themselves with endless Pimms sharpeners beside our bright blue swimming pool while my father escaped to his study from where the plaintive strains of Engelbert Humperdinck's Please Release Me wafted out on an endless loop.
This Hawaiian Tropic idyll was interrupted every week by the lugubrious swimming pool man who would appear bearing vats of chemicals with skull and crossbones emblazoned upon them. These vats of chlorine were deemed so poisonous that we children could only swim in the brief moments between chemical dumping. The adults rarely swam either although occasionally toppled in late at night when feeling particularly refreshed.
Maybe they were wise. Chlorine by-products found in swimming pools are linked to higher incidences of asthma, skin diseases, lung damage, stillbirths, miscarriages and bladder cancer, according to credible research conducted in the U.S., Canada, Norway, Australia and Belgium. One researcher noted that 10-year-old children spending an average of 1.8 hours per week in a swimming pool environment suffered lung damage she would expect to see in an adult smoker. Dr. K. Thickett of the Occupational Lung Diseases Unit at the Birmingham Heartlands Hospital explains that swimmers are more prone to asthma than athletes in other sports. "Our results show that
nitrogen trichloride (produced by Chlorine) is a cause of occupational asthma in swimming pool workers like lifeguards and swim instructors,"
When his asthma patients stayed away from swimming pools their asthma symptoms were often resolved, many came off inhaled corticosteroids altogether. Although there are alternatives to chlorine like ozone for example, it remains the most popular pool cleaner.
However there is an alternative. Pond pools have been popular in Germany for years and are taking off here in a big way. Britain's natural swimming pool pioneer, Michael Littlewood, author of Natural Swimming Pools says that swimming pools use chemicals such as chlorine to kill bacteria, whereas a swimming pond cleanses the water naturally. They use the natural purifying properties of plants, as well as a small filter to extract surface debris such as leaves, and a small pump to keep the water circulating sufficiently through the planting area. Natural swimming ponds are a wonderful way of harnessing nature's intelligence. They completely eliminate the need for chemicals and constant cleaning as their biological self-cleansing processes are completely effective. Surplus nutrients and impurities, as well as harmful bacteria, are transformed by plants and natural water organisms. There are many public swimming ponds dotted about the country. In London there are the celebrated Hampstead Heath ponds as well as the Serpentine pool in Hyde Park, which is purified by its own artesian spring. During the hot spell I stumbled across this delightful Elysian paradise, which obscurely remains a well kept secret. There one can
swim eau naturel amongst swans and ducks, the city feels miles away. There is a wonderful restaurant, coffee bar and a supervised children's playground. For those used to blue pools, the natural mossy green of natural ponds may take some getting used to. However a bit of algae is part of the charm and may even be good for you - Harrods offers an `algae wrap' where a therapist smears you with the stuff, wraps you in foil and abandons you in a dark room for 40 minutes before relieving you of 150. I get this beauty benefit for the princely sum of 3.50 when I swim at the Serpentine, one of the many examples where going green improves your quality of life and saves money too. The excellent website www.river-swimming.co.uk lists public swimming ponds nation wide and enthusiastically promote all open swimming from tidal pools to the sea. However these lovely swimming spots, used safely for generations, are under constant threat from public safety busy bodies who toil energetically to close them. Having worked feverishly to ban conkers, unpasteurised cheese and hanging window baskets these non-elected bodies are now trying to close many open air swimming spaces that provide endless pleasure and do no harm to anyone.
Fortunately common sense sometimes wins, and there was much jubilation recently when Hampstead Ponds swimmers won a resounding victory over a proposed ban on swimming. But the future of many other open air ponds lies in the balance.
With much of the Med now a giant cesspit these natural ponds, many of which have sparkling Blue Flag status, remain an under-utilised national treasure. Use them or lose them!


Julia Stephenson is the author of the GREEN GODDESS environmental column in The Independent
Our thanks to Julia for allowing us to re-publish this article