Malcolm Tozer Reviews: Hung Out to Dry: Swimming and British Culture, in the Spring Edition of Physical Education Matters.
It was by chance that your reviewer came across this privately published social history of swimming and the evident enthusiasm of its author – devotee of outdoor bathing and self-taught historian – prompted the request for a copy. Chris Ayriss’s idiosyncratic approach is as refreshing as the waters he loves and the ebb and flow of his story matches that of meandering stream; you never know what is round the next bend.
The book spans ancient and modern, from the Roman occupation of Britain right up to the health-and-safety madness of present times. On the journey we meet bathing to satisfy superstitious, ritualistic, religious, medical, sensual, sexual, naturist, hygienic and escapist needs – amongst others – sometimes with the active approval of society, sometimes not. It would seem that skinny-dipping just for fun was never as simple as that.
Bathing’s real boom began in the mid-Victorian period when Thomas Cook introduced cheap rail excursions to seaside resorts; week-long factory closures saw whole towns decamp to Skeggie or Clacton; Billy Butlin’s promise of a week’s holiday for a week’s wage led to the popularity of holiday camps; major resorts competed for the biggest lidos and the highest diving boards; and inland cities provided their own riverside beaches and swimming lakes. Some marvellous photographs show packed crowds on Blackpool beach in 1949, with no room to swing a spade; sand-castle building in the shadow of London’s Tower Bridge in 1939; a sardine-jammed lido in Bristol in 1937; and fantastic multiple diving platforms at Henleaze and Weston-super-Mare.
The demise from the 1960s was sudden: it came with the introduction of cheap flights to Mediterranean beaches; the delights of sun and sangria; the building of corporation indoor swimming complexes; riverside landowners denying right of access; health concerns about polluted rivers, canals and lakes; and safety worries over unsupervised bathing. Recent evidence from my outlook in Cornwall suggests that a partial recovery is underway – helped by the economic recession, the popularity of ‘staycations’, and the ready availability of wetsuits. Is the bucket-and-spade holiday back in fashion?
All this is told in a jaunty style. A bevy of blurred boys’ bare bottoms may see the book banned from school libraries, but there is much here to inform and entertain all who have ever delighted in a midnight skinny-dip – outdoors, of course.