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Monday, July 26, 2010

The case of the rival 17th century swimming pools!

Yes, I'm blogging about swimming again, which for someone who is afraid of water seems a bit odd. It must be all the hot and sunny weather we're having. But something caught my eye when I was reading the newspaper over the weekend and sent me off researching the gardens of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, a mysterious and secret world that is fascinating to explore.

And so to 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!


Talli Roland said...


I was swimming in the Serpentine recently - I wonder how long that's been around. I know it's not strictly a 'pool', but the Serpentine is manmade...

Nicola Cornick said...

That sounds fun, Talli! I've read that the Serpentine was made during the 1730s as part of the redesign of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Something I didn't know is that only the eastern end is the officially called the Serpentine. The western half is called The Long Water.

margaret blake said...

Do they not swim in these pools now. Fascinating that they went swimming in the l7th century when they didn't bathe that much!

NinaP said...

I'm with Margaret. Why swim when one didn't bathe? Surely soap wasn't that expensive. Or maybe it was.