Thursday, 1 September 2016

"Oh, is the water sweet and cool, Gentle and brown, above the pool?" Landscapes of swimming

I’ve just had a great weekend down on my home turf in Wessex which involved a fair amount of sploshing around in water: paddling in the icy cold crystal-clear waters of the Test in Hampshire and wallowing in a bathing hole near the source of the Thames in West Oxfordshire. As ever, I kept my archaeological head on and got to thinking about the landscape evidence for swimming. I don’t mean the rise of the public swimming baths, pools and lidos which flourished following  the 1846 Public Baths and Wash-houses Act; there has certainly been lots of work on the architecture of these structures. Nor was I thinking about sea bathing which developed in popularity over the 19th century, rather I was pondering how swimming in fresh water, or what is now rather archly termed ‘wild swimming’, mucking around in rivers, ponds and streams might leave a landscape trace.
Obviously, much of the immediate impact is ephemeral, there are scrapes and erosion patches on river banks showing where people got in and out of the water. There are also the inevitable scrappy lengths of rope tied to trees, by which teenagers and those who still think they are teenagers can get their Tarzan fantasies out of their system. It is unlikely that these would survive in the long-term in the landscape record, although presumably it is this kind of simple set up that characterised the bathing places of the medieval and early modern world, everything informal and ad hoc. However, poking around a little it is clear that there is in fact a more substantial and developed landscape of freshwater swimming.

Parsons Pleasure c.1870
Parsons Pleasure c.1950
I’ve only looked at a rather small area, the middle and upper Thames in Oxfordshire, an area I know fairly well and it is where I’ve done most of my river swimming. A quick look at the map though reveals a multiplicity of bathing places in and around Oxford. In some cases, these were clearly quite informal , whilst in others quite considerable infrastructure developed. Perhaps the best known site is Parson’s Pleasure – a bathing place on the River Cherwell in the University Parks, which became well known as a place for nude bathing and was frequented by dons and students in the 19th and 20th century. The area was reserved for men, and was located on an ostensibly easily bypassed branch of the river. It was an area rich in University folklore- allegedly a female student accidentally punted passed a group of naked lounging dons. All but one cover their privates, but the classicist Maurice Bowra covered his face instead stating "I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford, I, at least, am known by my face”. From the 1930s a nearby area was used for naked bathing by female students and was known a Dames Delight. Although Parsons Pleasure started as an informal and undeveloped location, by the mid-20th century there were changing rooms, and the area was screened off from prying eyes by formal fencing.

Long Bridges Bathing Place c1950
Whilst, these two sites were clearly rather exclusive areas intended for the use of the Gown, the Town were also well provided with formal bathing places – Tumbling Bay (off the allotment on Botley Road), Long Bridges (near Donnington Bridge), Wolvercote and St Ebbe’s all had their own bathing places which were provided with varying levels of infrastructure. Tumbling Bay had changing rooms, weirs to manage the level of the formally landscaped pool, flower beds and ladders  These were clearly for the use of the general population of Oxford – St Ebbe’s for example, was before its clearance, one of the town’s largest slums. Indeed, many of these places seem to have been at least partly managed by the council before they closed them down in 1990s. Doubtless they were seen as cheap and easily maintained public services, less complex to manage and maintain than formally built lidos. [for more on the bathing sites of Oxford and what remains there now have a look at the great Dereliction in the Shires website )
Wolvercote bathing places - (C) Picture Oxon

It is perhaps not surprising that Oxford has so many river bathing locations- it’s a university town with many channels and watercourses braiding through it. Crucially, there were relatively few large industries chucking effluent into the water. However, it was not only in places like this that there were formal bathing places. I’ve fortuitously stumbled across a similar development in a small village just a dozen miles away. West Hanney lies on the Letcombe Brooke, one of the slow flowing tributaries of the Ock in the Vale of the White House. Not surprisingly, the river was used to power mills and for quenching the thirst of the inhabitants and their livestock. But in the later 19th century, a small formal bathing place was constructed on the brook. It seemingly comprised a corrugated iron enclosure, basic changing rooms and a veranda, whilst the stream was widened and provided with a concrete base. The local mill just downstream was able to maintain the level of water to allow swimming. This bathing place was paid for by the inhabitants of West Hanney and neighbouring East Hanney and was popular until in the early years of the 20th century there were allegations of ‘indecencies’ and its use was kerbed before it was finally destroyed by a flood in the 1940s. I only stumbled across this by chance, it is probable that many more such small-scale swimming holes must have  constructed and used in the 19th and 20th centuries, which would only be picked up by detailed exploration of OS maps and local histories.
Bathing place, West Hanney - late 19th century

A final dimension to these landscapes of swimming are the memorials to the occasions when things went badly wrong. Not surprisingly, it was not uncommon for people to drown, particularly when swimming near weirs or areas with strong undertows. In some cases, memorials were erected to them at or near the place of their demise. Perhaps the best known example is the obelisk erected on the weir at Sandford, just south of Oxford. Known as the ‘Sandford Lasher’ this weir was notoriously dangerous. The obelisk records the deaths of five students from Christchurch college who had drowned there in the 19th and early 20th century including the adopted son of J.M. Barrie. Another monument stands on the Thames between Folly Bridge and Osney Bridge commemorating Edgar Wilson, an assistant chemist, who died saving two boys who had got into trouble in the river in 1888.

 In the later 20th century swimming in natural watercourses went out of fashion, as worries about health and safety peaked in – and many children of my generation will remember being freaked out by the ‘Darkand Lonely Water’ public information films. It’s only recently that there has been renewed popularity in ‘wild swimming’ partly stimulated by Roger Deakin’s Waterlog. But these swimming sites are really interesting and neglected aspects of social history,that could do with some more research. Apart from anything as the worries about public decency at West Hanney and the ever-so-genteel hints of homosexuality associated with Parson’s Pleasure, these were places were the combination of nude swimming and young (and not so young) people meant that there were undoubtedly pretty strong sexual and gendered undercurrents to what went on.  The scene in a EM Forster’s Room With a View in which Mrs Honeychurch, Lucy and Cecil Vyse encounter the group of male characters bathing in the nude is just a hint of the kind of chance and planned encounters that must have happened at such sites. It would be wonderful for someone to start trying to record these sites, before they are lost to memory and nature.


Fogey said...

I remember swimming in Long Bridges as a boy. It was divided into sections and I think had once had separate male and female ends. At any rate it had shallow and deep sections, a diving board and a slide.

Two memories stick in my mind. One was a grass snake swimming by. The other was less salubrious - one summer, quite likely 1959, when I would have been 9, there were lumps of raw sewage floating in the pool as the nearby sewage works had failed. The pool was quickly closed, and wasn't reopened for months.

David Petts said...

Thanks for this memory- much appreciated! D