Posts Tagged ‘English Channel’

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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No Swimming in the Canal!

Specific river bathing areas became necessary when Matthew Webb opened the floodgates to outdoor swimming by conquering the Channel in 1875. Boys in particular took the distance swimming challenge to heart, unperturbed that a lack of swimwear was scandalising the ladies. Indoor and outdoor pools were to follow as a means of containing and controlling the increasingly popular swimming movement.

A legacy of these times is evident in many areas with no swimming signs proliferating near to city’s. Leicester for example has a well documented NO SWIMMING policy, with advice given to call the police if swimmers are seen enjoying themselves in the water.


These die hard attitudes are hard to keep down, see for instance the advice provided by Milton Keynes Park Trust, including direction to call the police below:

New Picture (4)

In the UK we have a significant lack of inland bathing waters when compared with the rest of Europe.

Germany 1,900

France 1,300

United Kingdom 12

In England, outdoor swimmers have been chased out of open water.

Yet, despite banning swimming in rivers and lakes for our health and safety, we still seem to experience roughly the same rate of drowning as the rest of Europe where swimming is very much encouraged? Does this mean that discouraging swimming in relatively safe and visible swimming locations push swimmers out of sight and into danger? Perhaps a lack of education and open water experience leave people ill equipped for misadventure, thus risking lives?

The British Swimmer Hung Out to Dry

Despite alarmist headlines, ROSPA reason that the risk of dying in UK waters are similar to the risk of being struck by a motor vehicle as a pedestrian 1:200,000 each year. Yet with better education even this very low risk can be dramatically reduced. Education makes a huge difference.

Wild Swimming at Carding Mill Valley – Reservoir Aug 2012

If children can be taught to cross roads with care, surly the British public could be reeducating in water safety.

Wild Swimming in Belgium

Read the full story in: Hung Out to Dry Swimming and British Culture

“A persuasive book… intriguing from the outset, a fascinating chronology of British swimming which goes much deeper than one might expect. Well researched and interestingly written… the historical ebb and flow of swimming popularity is quite remarkable.” November 2012 Swimming Times

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Sean Conway, 32, has less than 150 miles to go in his 1000 mile challenge to swim from Lands End to John O’Groats, but bad weather and unpredictable tides have slowed him down and sapped his budget.

Sean Conway

Sean set off from Land’s End on June 30, and hoped to swim the equivalent of the English Channel every day.

To follow Mr Conway’s progress visit: http://www.swimmingbritain.co.uk/

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The Opening of Tooting Beck Lido 1906
The Opening of Tooting Beck Lido 1906

For the poor, the swimming pool became the cheapest place to bathe. At the opening of Tooting Bec Lido in London, Wandsworth Borough News reported – regarding hundreds of small boys: ‘heedless of the presence of members of the fair sex, [they] unblushingly undressed and were sampling the quality of the water long before the “big guns” had departed.’ Many bathers walked barefoot across the common prompting complaints to the Council that the facility was being ‘stormed by the riff-raff from slum land.’ Without doubt the waters lost much of their sparkle as 1,500 were bathing each day. Regarding indoor pools, many included a second class or boy’s bath, in which boys could bathe for a fraction of the cost of a private tub. Even so their behavior needed regulation so that hijinks did not end in complete mayhem. Although initially built to complement river, lake and canal swimming, concerns over indecency prompted change. No working class man or boy owned a bathing costume, in fact if you look carefully at the front cover picture of my book: Hung Out to Dry, Swimming and British Culture you will notice one youngster carrying the only clothes he has, screwed up in one hand.


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Ivan Burt-Smith (8) who will be swimming 22 miles (1416 lengths)  at Selkirk Swimming Pool to raise funds for a new roof for Selkirk Scout Group hall
An eight year old cub scout is to help raise the estimated £25,000 needed to reslate the roof of his scout hall.His father reports: “the children have been quite captured with everything involved with the Olympics, and swimming particularly, and Ivan came up with the idea of swimming ‘the Channel’ himself.”

Ivan is now swimming between three and five times a week as he gears up for the self-imposed challenge. He was having swimming lessons once a week until joining the Selkirk pool’s swimming club which meets twice a week, and he is going along with Olga his sister to swim on other evenings.

The Channel is roughly equivalent to 1,416 lengths of Selkirk swimming pool. Ivan will swim three to five one hour sessions per week depending on how he can fit it around his homework and other activities.“He will swim approximately 50 to 55 lengths per session, hoping to finish in a little over 24 hours in total so, effectively, he will be swimming the Channel in just over a day! He plans to complete his challenge on Tuesday, March 12 at some time between 6.30pm and 7pm so that people can come and cheer him on to the finish if they want to.” More…

Channel Swimming

A milestone in British swimming history saw the successful cross channel swim by Captain Matthew Webb in 1875. As the crow flies, the distance from Dover to Calais is just less than eighteen miles, but tides and winds mean a longer distance has to be covered by the swimmer. It took Webb twenty-one hours forty five minutes to complete the crossing. He then held on to the accolade of channel supremacy until 1911, when T W Burgess managed to swim across on his sixteenth attempt. The effect of Webb’s success had a dramatic impact on the nation’s youth as reported in the New York Times:

‘The London baths are crowded; each village pond and running stream contains youthful worshippers at the shrine of Webb and even along the banks of the river, regardless of the terrors of the Thames police, swarms of naked urchins ply their limbs, each probably determined that he one day will be another Captain Webb.’

Boys inspired by Webb sparked a shift in British culture that change swimming from an animated, outdoor, playful activity, mostly enjoyed by working class boys, into a very competitive sport, confined predominantly to man-made indoor pools. Read the history of British Swimming and discover our rich heritage.

The youngest person to swim the channel is  Thomas Gregory (UK) – in 1988 at 11 years 330 days, the oldest, Roger Allsopp (UK) – in 2011 at 70 years and four months.

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Shirley May France

This remarkable woman became famous through her attempts to swim the Channel. Shirley’s story as reported in The Telegraph describes her life changing claim to fame and opens a window on to the popularity of, and interest in swimming just 60 years ago. More…

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File:Penberth Cove - geograph.org.uk - 36523.jpg

I spent the Christmas season with friends in Cornwall, and having sampled the delights of swimming in the wintery seas of St Ives, I enjoyed a visit to a family farm in the wildest part of West Cornwall. With no gas, electricity, mains water or telephone line, you might think that life on this windswept hillside would be unbearable, yet the house was warm and comfortable and my hosts Pearl and Walter, delightful.  As Cornish as the day is long, this couple view a visit to Truro as a trip up country, and rarely venture beyond the horizon as seen from their wild and imposing landscape.

As we were taken on a tour of the farm, Walter explained that drinking water for the house was pumped up from a well that the Phoenicians divined and built some 2,500 years ago, to supply fresh drinking water straight from the ground, rather than using river or lake water as did the locals. They brought slaves to work the mine’s three shafts, burrowing deep beneath the farm.  Its treasure was exported along what was known as Solomon’s Route to the ships, then on to distant shores. Walter is not a swimmer himself, but the pool he had built on his land delighted Pearl, a keen swimmer from childhood.

Back in the farmhouse we sat in candlelight as Pearl told me the story of her mermaid like childhood. She grew up in Penberth Cove, some 3 miles from Land’s End, which supported a thriving fishing community. Pearl relates: ‘Grandfather lived in the house next to the sea, and I grew up in a flat above the fisherman’s cellars.’ Born in 1942, Pearls childhood coincided with the golden age of swimming. She swam for 20 minutes each morning before breakfast, and after a day of schooling in St’ Just, she returned to the sea for another 20 minutes before tea. Winter swells made the rocky cove too dangerous for bathing, but calm weather at any time of year put swimming on the daily agenda for this fishing and swimming community.  Even when she started work Pearl would swim every day late into the evening, ‘It was wonderful’, she remembers.

As the tide goes out at the cove, three sand bars can be reached, and a small rock pool is exposed which became the playground of the young. Pearl learned to swim at the age five, her mother Eva swam out to the sandbars carrying Pearl on her back. The doggy paddle brought her safely home, but a fear of deep water developed when she could not touch the bottom along the way. ‘I was eleven or twelve before I learnt to swim properly,’ Pearl remembers. ‘I spent the whole summer in my swimming costume.’ The children were in and out of the water all summer long and when Eva took a plunge the children would shout ‘tidal wave’ referring to her corpulent stature. The water was home throughout the day to adults and children alike. ‘Mother knitted my first costume, but it became so heavy when it was wet, that it would hang down to my feet. I ended up swimming in shorts and a t-shirt, it was more decent,’ she said.

With a dozen boats in the cove there were always adults around, but the children were not supervised as such. Eight children lived in the cove itself and another 13 came down from surrounding villages to bathe. The older boys built a 12 foot raft with oil drums beneath for buoyancy, and anchored it in the middle of the cove to swim out to. ‘Once it broke free during a storm and it went out into the English Channel, they had to put out a warning to shipping.’ Teenagers would move the raft over to the rocks so that young children could use it to climb out of the sea and then jump in off the rocks. Pearls little brother was taken out by the older boys and swam back on his own aged only three. ‘He swam with the doggy paddle and has swum like a fish ever since.’

You might think that this easy going attitude towards swimming could end only in tragedy, you would be wrong, no child drowned in the cove. Teaching children to swim in open water was always seen as a good thing as it put swimming abilities into perspective and taught respect for life and the sea. What a contrast these golden days of swimming make with the restrictions of childhood today.

I love listening to stories like this and visiting historic swimming holes, but unless an effort is made to capture our history it will soon slip beneath the tides of time. This year I hope to celebrate 100 years of swimming and with your help make 2012 a year for swimmers to remember. Please visit www.hungouttodry.co.uk and click on the icon: Look, Listen, and Swim: 2012, for more details.

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