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!