When we think ‘swimming’, we mostly think of cold changing rooms, chilly water, damp towels and the pungent smell of chlorine. Despite the evident joy and enthusiasm of children, indoor swimming is just about as far as you can get from a natural experience. Mind you, prison was never intended to be pleasurable. It may surprise you to discover that Indoor swimming baths were built as cauldrons for poor bathers and as containment for the rowdy enthusiasm of skinny dipping men and boys.
Last year I visited two countries which offer a complete contrast to the British swimming experience. Take Iceland for example, just larger in size than Ireland yet with a very small population corresponding to that of the City of Leicester. The weather in Iceland is much worse though and it hardly even gets light in winter. Even so outdoor swimming is a national obsession and with 123 lidos brimming with hot water and people having fun it’s obvious that swimming really means something up North. Swimming, relaxing in the outdoor Jacuzzi, diving and water slides are a daily pleasure in Iceland. The lido is to Icelanders the place to be, where life is lived and friendships are enriched. With dry warm changing rooms and hardly any chlorine, you should see Iceland, it’s extraordinary.
Later in the year I had my eyes opened wide when visiting Switzerland. At home in Leicester, all our fun outdoor swimming opportunities have been taken away and any dissenting voice on the subject drowned out in favour of the Councils swim indoors policy. Yet in Zurich I swam the city river with its diving boards, chain hand rails, life guards and changing rooms. The water was teeming with swimmers enjoying fresh air and good health.
Leicester used to have very similar facilities built into the river and canal. For instance the Gas Works Lido built behind the lock near the old Dunlop Factory, and The Bede House, which now lies sad and forgotten, hidden away like a shameful secret. This Mecca of fun and freedom drew swimmers from across the city. How ironic then, that the remains of one of Leicester’s best riverside lidos where swimming has been outlawed for nearly 80 years stands alongside our statue of liberty!
Another swimming venue to look out for is in Castle Gardens, find the ‘no swimming’ signs and you’ll discover the chain handrails on the canal banks, still their long after Leicester’s swimmers have been chased away. Great swimmers like John/Jack Jarvis! He raced in the Seine in the 1900 Paris Olympics, becoming the first ever triple gold medal winner. Jarvis was a Leicester legend, a man calling himself ‘Amateur Swimming Champion of the World,’ who went on to earn 108 international swimming championships to prove it! Where did he train to swim long distance? You guessed it, in the river Soar in the canal in Leicester right by those no swimming signs in Castle Gardens. Swimming extended all the through the city up to North Bridge with another bathing place just beyond it now laid to rest under St Margaret’s Way.
Abbey Park had a riverside lido in its centre, with swimming races held above the weir and water polo matches below it in Tumbling Bay, the steps the swimmers used then are still there today! When you next visit the Space Centre, stand on the new footbridge over the river and look at the remnants of Abbey Meadows Bathing Station on the far bank of the river and discover yet more chain handrails on the canal banks just around the corner.
In Leicester we also had two privately owned lidos, Kenwood in Knighton and Leicester Lido on Humberstone Road behind the Trocadero cinema. Leicester had five paddling pools, all now closed with two converted into skateboarding Mecca’s because skateboarding is supposedly safer than paddling, though I’m not convinced myself. Why not take a look at Leicester’s swimming history for yourself?
There’s no better place to start than in Leicester’s museums. On New Walk visit the ground floor art gallery, climb onto the stage and right there in the middle you will see a painting of old Leicester completed in about 1840, look carefully and you will see the river swimmers on the river bank and diving from the bridge. Visit the Newark Houses Museum and you can find out about Daniel Lambert a famous Leicester swimmer, see his oversized clothing and furniture, and pictures on display! But what about our modern day, it can’t be safe to go swimming outdoors in rivers and lakes these days can it? It stands to reason that it’s just too dangerous! On my visit to Switzerland, I discovered just the opposite to be true.
I swam through Basal with my clothes packed in a waterproof bag, dodging bridges ferries and barges and discovered that river swimming is Basil’s main tourist attraction. You can swim almost anywhere in Switzerland, Lakes are lined with lidos and bathing beaches one after another. And they are all really needed as everyone wants to bathe. Diving boards, pontoons, sunbathing lawns, children’s play parks, cafes and restaurants, one after another what a holiday. What saddens me though is that the idea for all this came from England, and that Leicester was at one time Swim City! It was the British that led the world back into water after years of religious and superstitious intolerance and persecution. Why, you may ask is swimming in rivers lakes and lidos so popular and successfully across Europe and America when we in Leicester are so sure it’s unsafe? Could it be that we are right and the rest of the world is wrong? I don’t think so, and that’s why I took the trouble to research and write the history of British swimming with a special emphasis on swimming in Leicester. Shocking, fascinating and often amusing the swimmers history centres on my city, where swimmers have truly been Hung Out to Dry.
Hung Out to Dry Swimming and British Culture by Chris Ayriss is available from all good bookshops and online at: hungouttodry.co.uk