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Abbey Park Lido

Abbey Park Lido

The Leicester Mercury reports: Fancy a dip in open water in this weather? To me, the mere thought of a swim in icy cold water brings me out in goose bumps – but, there are those who take the opposite view!

There was a time when British swimmers once filled the lakes and waterways of England.

But things changed and these intrepid swimmers soon found themselves chased out of the water and “rounded up and confined to indoor swimming”.

Some years back, an article I featured concerning swimming in Abbey Park prompted reader Chris Ayriss, of Western Park, to contact me about a book he had written on the history of swimming, Hung Out to Dry.

Mr Ayriss’s book “traces the demise of a swimming empire”.

It also reveals “why the swimmer has been chased out of the water”.

There is a chapter on Leicester and it shows that the Abbey Park was, at one time, used as a venue for major swimming competitions.

The author gives many instances of large-scale gatherings, especially when connected with the Abbey Park Show and told me that “on show days, thousands would travel to Leicester to see the swimming events. They would line the bank of the river to cheer on their heroes in the long distance swims, of both a mile and half-a-mile.

“One report speaks of an afternoon of solid rain not dampening the enthusiasm of thousands of spectators watching the proceedings, which were the biggest draw of the show. One thousand six hundred seats were provided for the spectators at a cost of 6d each.”

Apparently Leicester also had a fearsome reputation in water polo and “these raucous events had a great following”.

One match, against Derby, brought a whole trainload of supporters with it and generated as much excitement as we would see at a big football match today.

The site of the old water polo matches can still be clearly identified by the steps in Tumbling Bay, adjacent to the footbridge in the centre of the park.

Mr Ayriss wrote: “Despite the fact that children were encouraged to swim elsewhere, they continued to use Abbey Park until a prohibition order chased them out of the water in 1959.

“The Medical Officer of Health reported that the river was polluted to such a degree that it was unfit for bathing.

“Since then, great improvements have been made regarding water quality and when I checked with the Environment Agency, the city waters were listed as of ‘good quality’ and are now suitable for bathing.”

Other places in England with waters of similar quality have encouraged children to swim.

They have taken simple health and safety precautions such as having a lifeguard in attendance, dredging and rodent and algae control.

Mr Ayriss suggested similar steps could be taken in Abbey Park, and asked: “Could we not reopen the gates of the footbridge so lives of children are not put at risk? Could we not take down the signs that prohibit swimming and station a lifeguard instead of a warden on the riverbank?

“At one time, Leicester led the way when it came to the encouragement of swimmers. Perhaps now is the time to do something positive to remove the dangers of swimming rather than the swimmers!”

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The Leicester Mercury reports: A 100-metre slip’n’slide will be helping to raise money for the Loros hospice at a family event this summer. The popular ride will be at this year’s Family Fun Day at Leicester Racecourse on Sunday, August 7.

Loros fundraising co-ordinator Laura Fitzsawyer said: “Slip’n’slides are brilliant fun and we wantedLOROS to do one to raise money for the hospice.

“Leicester Racecourse have always been really supportive of us and we asked them about putting on an event with a slip’n’slide and they said we should bring one to the Family Fun Day, which is great because there should be in the region of about 10,000 people there.”

Visitors with swimming costumes will be able to pay £3 for a single go on the slip’n’slide or £8 to have three goes. The real enthusiasts can pay £10 and get to slide all day long.

The Family Fun Day will take place between 10am and 4pm and there will be horses taking part in flat racing on the day, as well as pony rides, stilt walkers, fire displays, face-painting and some superhero visitors.

And if the slip’n’slide isn’t enough for adrenalin junkies, there will also be a bungee run, a gladiator arena, jousting, an activity castle and a fun run.

Entry to the Family Fun Day will be free for children and cost £15 for adults. More…

 

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Well the answer is Yes and No!

The Leicester Mercury reports: “Proposals for a “secret Island” on the River Soar in Leicester have won a contest for suggesting ways it could be regenerated. Architects from around the world were invited to submit designs for Soar Island in the city’s industrial heartland.” The winning design “brings together narrow boat markets, micro-farming and craft workshops, with open-air performance space, riverside starter homes and a floating swimming pool.

On the other hand…

“City mayor Sir Peter Soulsby said he would be interested to see what elements of the design could realistically be delivered… ‘There was plenty of imagination and creative thinking in SWA’s proposals, although clearly it would be the more commercially deliverable elements that could play a part in our vision for Soar Island.

‘While the final scheme will be at the discretion of the developer who ultimately takes on this site, it’s possible that some of SWA’s pioneering ideas – such as self-build homes and workspaces – could work on a site like this.’ ”

No mention of the floating swimming pool as one of the commercially deliverable elements of the plan here! This is a great pity because Leicester City Council are in a position to celebrate Leicesters status as Environment City and at the same time build on the city’s rich swimming heritage by including a floating swimming pool as proposed in this winning design. Similar proposals are afoot in the capital, and have long been an attractive feature on the continent.

Leicester is being transformed before our eyes as the vision of Sir Peter Soulsby the city mayor unfolds and develops. His appreciation for this historic city and its rich heritage cannot be denied even by open mouthed skeptics. But could this scheme as a floating swimming pool in Leicester be commercially viable? One only has to take a look at the success of the bathing beach at Rutland Water to find the answer.

Build it and they will come!

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The City of Leicester holds a rich treasure trove of history dating back to Roman times.

Discover a 2,000 year history that will surprise, sadden and hopefully inspire you.

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The Leicester Mercury reports:

More than 80 firms submitted proposals to transform Soar Island as part of a competition being run by Leicester City Council and Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

The two-acre Soar Island is in the centre of the city’s rundown waterside area, the subject of a 15-year, £26 million regeneration plan.

It lies in a highly visible location, where the river and the Grand Union Canal meet.

Sarah Wigglesworth Architects’ design [pictured above] is inspired by low-impact living, sustainable communities and the idea of ‘a secret island to live on and play on’. It brings together narrow boat markets, micro-farming and craft workshops with open-air performance space, riverside starter homes and a floating swimming pool.

Discover the history of swimming in Leicester…

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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.

Wild Swimming in Zurich

Wild Swimming in Zurich

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 Lido

Abbey Park Lido

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.

Kenwood Lido LeicesterIn 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?

Leicester 1840 Artist Unknown

Leicester 1840 Artist Unknown

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

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Much has been said and done to deter wild swimming in Leicester. However a recent discovery shows just how clean Leicesters waterways are. The Leicester Mercury reported on March 12th that a family of otters had been photographed in the City Center.

Otters in Leicester City Center

The paper reports: “The mammals which are famously shy, have been photographed by city council otter spotters.”

“The riverside rangers discovered the photos after checking wildlife cameras at secret locations where anecdotal evidence of otters had been reported.”

“Adrian Lane, city council senior riverside officer, said: ‘ “We were really excited to discover these pictures, which show that despite the hustle and bustle of the urban environment, a female otter has managed to raise three cubs almost to maturity.” ‘

“The presence of the otter, being an apex predator at the top of the food chain in waterways, signifies that everything from their preferred fish diet downwards is healthy and abundant, so it’s a great sign for us.”
Swimming in Abbey Park Leicester
Perhaps the rivers are clean enough for wild swimmers after all!

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