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Monday, June 28, 2010

A Brief and Selective History of Swimming!

I've taken a longer-than-expected break from the blog over the past couple of weeks due to a terminally stubborn set of book revisions that simply refused to work. I knew there were problems with the manuscript and, hard as I worked to fix them, my writer's intinct told me that there was still something wrong even when I had finished draft 2. I tinkered, I re-wrote, I changed one thing which led to another which brought the whole thing down like a pack of cards. I had a fabulously helpful set of revision notes from my editor but still I could not do it. I cried. I comfort ate. I didn't sleep. Now I have draft 3, a sleep deficit, and no idea whether the book is any good since my judgement is shot to pieces. I love being a writer.

Anyway, now I've emerged into the daylight I see it is a beautiful hot sunny day so to get back into the blogging I decided to post a piece about aspects of the history of swimming, some of which is taken from an article I read in the Daily Telegraph newspaper over the weekend and the rest from my own researches. When I was a child I used to go swimming in the open air at the Ilkley Lido. It was fabulous; very bracing! The popularity of lidos faded with the arrival of chlorinated indoor heated pools but outdoor and "wild" swimming still appeals. The Serpentine in Hyde Park in London is fed by a natural well which keeps 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. (I never progressed much beyond that stage myself!) 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?) And 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.

Sea bathing became popular as a health cure during the Georgian period. The earliest bathing machines appeared at Scarborough in the 1730s and were basically a horse drawn carriage featuring an enclosed room with a collapsible hood at the seaward end to shield patients as they were submerged naked in the waves by attendants called dippers. Patrons would get in at the top of the beach, change out of their clothes as the horse pulled the carriage towards the sea and then step directly into the water from the front of the machine.

The resort and spa town of Brighton took off as a venue for both sea bathing and salt water drinking (!) from about 1750. And Queen Victoria had this delightful bathing machine (picture above), now at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. By now the bathing machine looked like very comfy beach huts on wheels and they could be hired for half hour periods. And people no longer bathed in the nude. This was the Victorian period after all! The picture on the right is a Victorian child's bathing costume. Ladies tended to wear more clothes for bathing than they did for activities on dry land!


On my visits to various historical houses I've also come across a number of plunge pools from the Georgian and Regency period. There was a Gothic bath house at Corsham Court which is very ornate (picture left) and still stands in the grounds and at Lydiard Park there is a plunge pool that was built around 1820 as an aid to health. Cold water cures were recommended for over-eating as well as a general aid to good health and apparently plunging into the lake at your stately home was thought to be as efficacious as sea-bathing with a very naughty 18th century poem promising it could reach the parts that other cures could not and even revive a flagging sex life!

Are you a swimmer or a paddler? Would you like your own bathing machine or plunge pool? I can't help thinking there was a lot of style in the way some of our ancestors bathed compared to today!

15 comments:

Keira Soleore said...

Nicola, welcome back to blogging. I can barely float, and mostly bob in the shallows. Rest of the family swims and enjoys it. But I adore watching flowing water, particularly at oceans. Nothing is more soothing than that.

margaret blake said...

I loved this blog, Nicola - Ilkley Lido, brr, brr, sounds a lot like The Galleon in Tatley, Near Manchester where I used to go. Freezing. However I do love wild swimming, have swam in many rivers, Ribble and lots in Wales but nothing beats swimming in the Gulf (Long Boat Key - no oil spills there yet!) or the Indian Ocean or the Coral Sea, oh just showing off.

Loved your history of swimming too - I often have my characters taking a dip! Think my ideas are inspired by From Here to Eternity -oh so sexy.

Welcome back, you have been missed.

NinaP said...

Hey Nicola! So sorry to hear about your MS woes. But thanks for sharing. Makes me feel less alone (and more normal). :-)

Swimming... I nearly grew chlorine gills as a child. Not a day went by that I wasn't in the back yard swimming round and round our 10" aboveground with my sibs. Then, at fourteen, I saw the movie Poltergeist. Haven't been a pool since. Funny, how powerful the mind can be.

The Virtual Victorian said...

I loved this too - that river looks so idyllic and reminds me of my youth when we used to swim in the river each summer. Bliss!

Kim said...

Nicola you are a mine of information, (interesting info too I might add), and I look forward to each new blog you post.

Back home in New Zealand when I grew up most schools had pools and everyone learnt to swim. I was a fish, beach or swimming pool, it mattered not. Through the years there were family picnics, I'm talking cousins, aunties, uncles etc, we would all meet up at the beach and spend the day in the water, laying in the sun and BBQ-ing. They were happy carefree days.

I'm living in the Midwest in the States at the moment and missing the ocean dreadfully.

Nicola Cornick said...

Keira, thank you. Yes, I love watching and listening to the ocean too. I find it very relaxing. It's one of the major reasons we visit Scotland each year - that white sand beach at the top of the blog is one of the places we go to a lot. Kim, like you I don't live anywhere near the ocean now and I miss it very much!

Nicola Cornick said...

Margaret, you win the "I've swum in some fabulous places prize!" Oh, the Coral Sea! How superb! I have bobbed in the Dead Sea, swum in the Red Sea and take a dip each year in a Scottish Loch so I suppose that for someone who can;t actually swim very well I've done ok!

Nicola Cornick said...

LOL, Nina, on Poltergeist! Yes, these things can be very influential! I never go out in a fog at the seaside after seeing... Yes, you guessed it!

Thanks for the sympathy on the wip. It has been tough and I think it helps to share the problems as well as the really great things about being a writer.

Nicola Cornick said...

VV,I love that stretch of the River Lambourn. The water is so clear and the greenery so lush. I was there yesterday with the dog and wanted to jump straight in (although the dog doesn't like it when we get in his environment!) The springs are still bubbling because although it's very dry now it takes the water 3 months to filter through the chalk. There were lots of kids playing in the water and having a great time!

margaret blake said...

Sorry about my typo - that should be Gatley and NOT Tatley, if anyone knows the area they would have been confused.

Scottish Loch, love to do that one day, Nicola. I am off to Loch Awe first week in September, would it be too cold...I guess so.

Nicola Cornick said...

Oooh, you could try going for a dip in the loch in September, Margaret! I've done that when the day was sunny. The water was "refreshing" and I couldn't stay in long but it was worth it!

Amy DeTrempe said...

I have a book that needs edits hanging over my head too. I think it is amazing that something we take for granted, like swimming, has such an interesting history. I cannot imagine being a knight and swimming in armor though.

Nicola Cornick said...

Hi Amy! I've just found your blog and really enjoyed looking around. Yes, I find it extraordinary to think of a knight swimming in armour. I must find out what the other six agilities were and whether they were equally as challenging.

Good luck with the edits!

Talli Roland said...

Really enjoyed this, Nicola - thank you. I grew up next a lake and ocean in Nova Scotia, Canada, so swimming was a big part of my childhood. I love it!

I have been to the Lido in the Serpentine but I must admit the squishy bottom turned me off a bit!

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you, Talli! Ugh on the squishy bottom! Nothing puts me off wild swimming quite so much as stepping on something and not knowing what it is. Sand between the toes is nice, squish not!