Nicola here! Last month we had a heatwave in England and now once again the hot weather is back, the grass has turned yellow and
there’s talk of banning the use of hosepipes. Our heat here (up to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit) is nothing though compared to the temperatures elsewhere in Europe and also across the world. It’s not something we’re equipped to deal with (no air con in most homes and other buildings) but at least as an island we have lots of lovely beaches and cool seas. I live as far away from the sea as it’s possible to do in England so I make do with the local swimming pool which is still very refreshing even though it’s a heated pool. Elsewhere in the country, the lidos – outdoor, unheated swimming pools – are becoming very popular again. It reminds me of the Spartan regime of my school swimming lessons which I always associate with the smell of wild garlic because they took place at an outdoor pool in the woods!
“Wild" swimming in rivers and lakes is very popular too. The Serpentine in Hyde Park in London is fed by a natural well which keep s the water fresh and one of the places I go to walk and take the dog swimming is the source of the River Lambourn which is fed by springs that rise in the chalk downland. The water is pure and clear and on a day like this you just want to jump straight in!
Swimming is a natural human impulse; we have apparently been swimming for at least 10 000 years and babies are born knowing how to doggy paddle. There is a rock painting in Wadi Sura, SW Egypt, showing swimmers 10 000 years ago and there are also depictions of swimming in art from the early Minoan, Incan and Babylonian empires. The Egyptians, Persians and Greeks were all keen swimmers with Plato going so far as to say that anyone who could not swim lacked a proper education. The Japanese were holding swimming competitions as early as 36BC. Medieval English knights used to swim in armour as one of the "seven agilities." (I'd love to know what the other six were and can't find any references – Can anyone help?) In the picture from a medieval illustration, the knight is wearing the medieval equivalent of a rubber ring (probably made of animal bladder – thanks Wench Andrea for that tidbit!)with a breathing tube so he can keep it inflated! It also looks as though he as a fake tail in the background too – another buoyancy aid? Meanwhile Everard Digby, one of the Gunpowder Plotters wrote a book called: "A Short Introduction for the Learnne to Swimme" in 1595, a sort of self-help manual for anyone with access to a lake, river or pond who wanted to teach themselves the breast stroke.
All this begs the question of where is the oldest swimming pool in the UK. There are rival claims to this status from Oxford and Cambridge universities who seem to enjoy this sort of rivalry! Emmanuel College Cambridge which claims that it has (probably!) the oldest swimming bath in the country that is still in use. This glorious little pool was in use as early as 1690 or possibly even earlier. A changing hut in the classical style was built about 1745 and the present thatched hut dates from the mid-19th century. By 1745 a 'plunge' was regarded as good for headache, and 'against the vapours and impotence'. In living memory the water in the pool was dark green with algae, so dark that a Fellow who liked to swim the whole length along the bottom complained that he lost his way. A line was painted to help him and known as Jones's Line. That sort of water quality doesn't sound very tempting and it's good to hear that these days the water is purified and re-circulated.
Emmanuel College's pool has a rival, however. In the paper this weekend was an article about the refurbishment of the pool at Christ's College. Archives there suggested that their Fellows' Bathing Pool was dug from the alluvial soil in a corner of the college garden in the mid-17th century. It was known to be in use by 1688, pipping Emmanuel by two years. The design of Christ College's bathing pool is classical with a perimeter decorated by busts of Christ's scholars including the astronomer Ralph Cudworth, poet John Milton, mathematician Nicholas Saunderson and polymath Joseph Mede.
Until its renovation earlier this year, Christ's pool was fed by Hobson's Conduit, a 400-year-old water course originally built to bring clean water into a disease ridden town. Over the past twenty years the pool had slipped into decline with various alternative uses being suggested including turning it into an ornamental duck pond. However it is now restored to its original beauty.
I like the idea of the rival colleges feverishly digging away in the mid 17th century to see who would be first with the bathing pool. Or possibly of Emmanuel College Fellows peering over the wall at Christ's College, envying them their new swimming pool, and wanting one of their own. No doubt the issue of which college, Emmanuel or Christ's, has the most ancient waters will continue to provoke debate!
You’ve probably noted that all the people who swam or wrote about it, were men. Women were not encouraged to get in the water before the sea bathing of the Georgian era although I am sure that if they lived in the country they probably did go swimming. Perhaps I should have said that swimming was not something a lady was taught to do. And sea bathing was different, of course. You didn’t have to be able to swim when there were attendants called dippers to submerge you in the waves!
Are you a swimmer or a paddler? Do you prefer the beach, a lake or the pool? Or would you rather stay in the shade on dry land with a good book?!