Archive for the ‘Skinny Dipping’ Category

Bathing Machines at Bognor

Today there is much debate as to the right costume for outdoor swimming.

Are you really a wild swimmer if you were a wet suit or should you just wear a swimsuit and brave the cold?

Now in days gone by the issue was a little more sensitive. When day trips to the seaside became fashionable and when both sexes wanted to bathe, something had to be done to protect public decency. Separate bathing areas for men and women were established on the beach and the introduction of bathing machines became a tantalizing spectacle for spectators gathered on the promenade.

The whole story makes a fascinating read – see: Hung Out to Dry, Chapter 3, Sex, Sea and Swimming Trunks – for the full story…


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Western Daily Press reports: “The oldest surviving open-air swimming baths in the UK, in Bath, are set to be fully restored and reopened to the public.

The Grade II listed Cleveland Pools – a 200-year-old Georgian lido – has secured funding of £4.1 million, including a development grant of £366,200, from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The restoration project, run by community group The Cleveland Pools Trust, will conserve the Georgian features and upgrade the facilities to allow for year-round swimming and other activities.

When complete, the site will include a 25-metre swimming pool, children’s splash area, pavilion and cafe. The pools will be naturally treated and heated using the latest technology.”

“The pools first opened in 1815 following the Bathwick Water Act which prohibited nude bathing in the river.

Laid out in the shape of a miniature Georgian crescent, the site includes two bathing pools, the original changing rooms and a private ladies pool.

They are one of only a small number of pre-Victorian sporting buildings to survive nationally and are thought to be the oldest swimming baths of its type in Western Europe.

The site closed to the public in 1978 and after finally closing altogether in 1984 was briefly used as a trout farm.”


Nude bathing (or skinny dipping) once common on river and lake-sides throughout the UK was responsible not only for the construction of swimming pools such as this, but also for a shift in cultural attitudes towards outdoor swimming. See Hung Out to Dry, Swimming and British Culture – Chapter 3 Sex, Sea and Swimming Trunks, and Chapter 5 Lidos Open, Rivers Close. More…

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Heddon Court Bathing Place, 1912

A rare glimpse of Heddon Court bathing place provided for wild swimmers in years gone by.

In an effort to preserve modesty, encourage cleanliness and educate swimmers, bathing places like this were built across the country. facility’s were meager; a bathing attendant, a changing hut (offering shelter to clothing in poor weather), a diving run and some steps attracted swimmers from miles arround. As you can see we don’t need much to enjoy open water. One essential sadly lacking today is the liberty to swim! Visit Europe and you will find outdoor swimming encouraged and enjoyed to the benefit of all. Why are we so prejudice against river and lake swimmers in England?

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You can’t get further from the sea in England than Leicester the place of my birth, the city in which I have lived throughout my life.

Leicester’s relationship with bathing extends over more than two thousand years. Its history is not celebrated, rarely is it mentioned, yet the history of Leicester holds the key to our understanding of why the swimmer has been hung out to dry, and to our understanding the revolution in British culture for which the swimmer is responsible. Changes experienced here reflect what has taken place all over the country; changes in thinking and attitude that now affect not just swimmers but every individual throughout the nation.

Bathing, once celebrated by the Romans, fell from grace due to deteriorating morals. Throughout the Empire, baths came in for condemnation by the Church as attempts were made to stem the tide of hedonism. They came to be viewed as ungodly, as the dwelling place of evil spirits. The Church taught that nakedness leads to sin; washing was seen as ungodly, even demonic. Swimmers also found themselves being disapproved of – for after all wasn’t it witches that floated on water? It was in Leicester that the last official ‘swimming of witches’ was recorded, in 1717. The unfortunate mother and daughter swam like empty barrels floating upon the water though they tried all they could to sink, thus their ‘guilt’ was supposedly confirmed.

The 16th century saw a moderation in Church teachings and although the records of history remain silent on the use of the river until 1741, a map of Leicester labels a field in this region as: ‘The Bath’, showing the return of swimming interest. Daniel Lambert (1770-1809 pictured left) a well-known personality in the town, taught boys to swim here in the river Soar. Lambert was an excellent swimmer and such a celebrity in the town that all of Leicester’s youngsters would look to him for instruction. Due to his tremendous size (he weighed over 52 stone when he died and measured 9׳ 4״ around his waist), he could float with ease; in fact it is said that he could swim with two men lying on his back. If some of his charges seemed a little timid, he would carry them across to the bank opposite their pile of clothes and leave them to struggle back. They would then either have to sink or swim!

Leicester’s first indoor pool was built in the 1840s on New Walk. Warm water fed the sizable pool from the owner’s factory. It was some forty feet long by twenty-one feet wide and was originally available only for private swimming. Things changed, however, when in 1847 the Corporation agreed to pay Mr J P Clarke one hundred pounds towards his expenses and Clarke’s baths were opened to the public. This was in response to the government’s 1846 directive to provide public baths and wash-houses. Leicester then could boast a swimming bath in response to the ruling well before a London pool opened in 1849! Bathers (men only) were charged ‘per penny, per person, per swim,’ and were given a clean towel into the price (costumes were unheard of).

Matthew Webb Swims the Channel

Then an explosion of swimming interest hit the nation, with the successful crossing of the Channel by Captain Matthew Webb in August 1875. Throngs of naked boys plied the waterways in response and it all became too much to bear. This same year a new bye-law for the park and St Margaret’s pasture was enacted reading: “No person shall bathe in any water in the park or recreation ground except in such place or places specially set apart by the Corporation and may be identified by notice ‘Subject to compliance with regulation.’ ” Thus nude bathing came under the control of the Corporation, who now prescribed its limitations. No doubt this came as a blessed relief to those who felt it essential to contain the masses of young adventurers. The imitation of Webb saw swimmers spanning great distances up and down river; however the Order would now ensure that youngsters were contained within much smaller stretches of river, out of public view. This would go a long way towards bringing to an end the annoyance and embarrassment experienced by respectable ladies. But it changed forever the thrill of distance swimming; boys and young men had to contend themselves with counting lengths rather than the real achievement of swimming for miles. From this point on, swimmers were in a sense confined by authority and so they paced backwards and forwards like caged animals. In the minds of the prudish Victorians that’s exactly what they were. The first victory had been achieved; shameless children were hidden away so that ladies, young and old, could stroll along the riverbank in peace.

Swimming History

A little later, as Tuke was painting the innocence of boyhood in Cornwall and the ASA were making sure that boys wore swimwear for competitions, concern over the sexuality of children was reaching fever pitch so unruly roughs were being rounded up and drawn into the swimming pool, where their conduct could be superintended. More swimming baths were erected one after another with brand new indoor facilities built: Vestry Street baths in 1891, known by locals as the ‘bug bath’ due to the prevalence of cock roaches; Cossington Street 1897 (fed by a spring), then in 1901 Spence Street  was constructed, followed by Aylestone in 1910 ( see picture above). Leicester truly became ‘swim city’! So it’s no wonder, with all this encouragement for swimmers, that the first long distance river swim through London saw a Leicester man Mr J A Jarvis take first place. He raced in the Seine in the 1900 Paris Olympics, becoming the first ever triple gold medal winner. John Jarvis called himself ‘Amateur Swimming Champion of the World,’ and he earned 108 international swimming championships to prove it! It is also no surprise that at the first Olympic Games to include female swimmers, Jennie Fletcher of Leicester won bronze for the 100m freestyle. Then at the same games in Stockholm (1912) she formed part of a relay team that went on to win gold. In all, she won over 20 major trophies and titles, becoming champion of England six times as well as setting 11 world records. Her achievements were recognised in 1971 when she was praised as the ‘world’s first great woman swimmer’, being included in the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Although she died in 1968 her achievements were not recognised by the City until 2005 when a plaque commemorating her achievements appeared at Cossington Street Sports Centre. These swimmers put Leicester on the map and indeed the city’s connection with swimming is truly remarkable.

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Brighton Men's Bathing Beach 1895

This 1895 photograph of men and boys swimming at low tide adjacent to Palace Pier Brighton, reveals a stark contrast to the attitude of swimmers today.

Firstly there are a large number of swimmers. They wear no wetsuits, in fact no costumes at all. Additionally cold water was the main attraction for outdoor swimmers back then, how different to swimmers today. A major concern on the part of the Environment Agency is that “waters can be very cold no matter how warm the weather – leading to cramp and breathing difficulties.” Now although this is true, it’s interesting to note that year round cold water swimming was and still is a healthy option for many.

Discover more about cold water swimming…




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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 Blue Lagoon Bristol 1937

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.

Henleaze Lake Bristol 1932

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.

London-on-Sea 1939

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?

Wild Swimming

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.

Hung Out to Dry: Swimming and British Culture, by Chris Ayriss, Lulu.com, 2012, £14.50, ISBN 978-0-557-12428-2

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The Pleasures of swimming in Felixstowe

Changing times saw a move away from the bathing machine to the bathing tent. Ironically nude bathing was deemed appropriate for boys but scandalous for girls. Discover the history of British bathing costume and watch some remarkable footage of British culture on the change! Simply click the images from BRITISH PATHE.

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