Lidos Open, Rivers Close

Excerpts from Chapter 5

The introduction of the lido saw a move away from the early morning swim, towards a preference for bathing in warm sunny conditions. This chapter covers the development of the lido and the exodus of swimmers from the river into purpose-built accommodation. This move, although appearing on the surface to be of great benefit to swimmers, would ultimately have dire consequences for river bathers, as we will see.

Learned Swimmers

The Big City

The Lido

Times Change

From Good to Bad

More Harm than Good

Save The Children

Dirty Rivers

Undercover

The Big City  In London, the ponds of Hampstead Heath have always been used as swimming holes, as has the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park. In the 1890s the Victoria Park Lake was concreted and its surroundings paved. This lake was very popular, with as many as 25,000 using it at a time, as illustrated in the introduction.  A lido in Victoria Park ultimately replaced the lake for swimming, but this meant a move away from the swimmers' natural surroundings. Years later when the lido eventually closed, swimming in the park sadly came to an end. This is a pattern that has been repeated all over the country; the move away from swimming in the wild, toward more civilised attractions, which has ultimately led to the near extinction of wild swimming almost everywhere. How though did this happen and why?  Swimming in the Serpentine has a long history. The National Swim-ming Society arranged one of the first competitions held there on August 6th 1837. The prizes included an attractive silver medallion and a golden guinea for the winner, with a bronze medallion and a half guinea for the runner up. The Pictorial Times of 1843 reported:  'Nothing is more conducive to health of body and energy of mind than a cool, refreshing, invigorating bath in clear water on a summer's morn-ing. We would have swimming made part of the projected system of na-tional education; without this adjunct, any plan for the instruction of the rising generation would be defective.  On Friday morning 18th August, at a very early hour, the vicinity of the Serpentine, in Hyde Park, was crowded with an immense number of persons, amounting, we should say, to twenty thousand, to view the grand swimming match, which was advised to come off on that morn-ing…'  When you compare the action and excitement of a football match to the com-paratively tame activities of a swimming event, is it not remarkable that so many were prepared to rise so early to take pleasure in such events? From December 1864 the Serpentine Swimming Club began to organise events; the annual Christmas morning races thus began and since 1903 the cov-eted Peter Pan Cup has been the prize awarded to the winner. Its value was greatly magnified by the fact that for many years it was presented by none other than Sir James Barrie himself.  The Peter Pan connection will strike a chord with all swimmers, but especially those adults who have not forgotten how to enjoy themselves in and around water. 

From December 1864 the Serpentine Swimming Club began to organise events; the annual Christmas morning races thus began and since 1903 the cov-eted Peter Pan Cup has been the prize awarded to the winner. Its value was greatly magnified by the fact that for many years it was presented by none other than Sir James Barrie himself.  The Peter Pan connection will strike a chord with all swimmers, but especially those adults who have not forgotten how to enjoy themselves in and around water. The club's headquarters were beneath an old elm tree on the south side of the lake, with a wooden bench for clothing being the only facility. Fred Houghton says in Breaking the Ice:    'Indeed it can truthfully be said we were as close to nature as one could ever wish to be and how we loved it. Even the swans were given names to which they answered. There was no shelter other than that given by the trunk of a burley old elm. We were in full view of the riders in Rotten Row and this fact subsequently brought about the first change.'   This first change saw a mound created the full length of the course to hide the bathers from view. However, the lack of screening for those getting changed led to many complaints of indecency. The tradition of early morning bathing ensured that the spectacle would not be witnessed by women, who were very well aware of the need to make themselves scarce in the early hours so as not to see what the 'stork' saw. Even so, a protest was made in the House of Commons, referring to disgusting scenes observed on the banks of the Serpentine, which were allegedly more disgusting than those to be witnessed in darkest Africa. Boys were customarily chased out of the lake because they insisted on skinny-dipping and this became the theme of many amusing photographs, as depicted on the front cover.  In the old days, a diving board was provided for these early bathers. This was really just a plank that stood on four posts in the water, with another plank connecting it to the bank. The connection was only in position for two hours, being packed away promptly at 9.00 a.m. as the boatmen (RHS) were always anxious to get home to their breakfast. Children flocked to the Serpentine especially because they could swim there for free. Many simply could not afford to swim in the newly created in-door pools despite the relatively low admission charges; besides outdoor swimming was fun and accessible. Commander Gerald Forsberg remembers:   

'My own initial aquatic adventure was to swim across the lake. This not only required a certain standard of high physical ability, but also an equal and opposite standard of low animal cunning, because the Royal Humane Society boat was stationed in the most strategic place for just the express purpose of stopping such dangerous young voyages. It was necessary to wait until the R.H.S boatman had his attention quite firmly diverted elsewhere - not infrequently by an accomplice-cum-decoy. When the currently devised stratagem was operating successfully, one made a mad sprint for the other side. The centre line of the lake was the point of no return. From there on, one could pretend - in best Nelsonian fashion - not to hear or see the boatman's urgent signals to return. Or one could innocently plead a most pressing necessity to land on the nearest shore for a rest. I succeeded in such enterprises some half-dozen times before being recognised as a regular transgressor and 'warned-off' formally. In quite blunt straight forward fashion too; R.H.S boatmen were frequently ex-sailors with a memorably blistering vocabulary and a muscular exper-tise with a well-aimed wallop.'   It was with mixed feelings that members of the Serpentine Swimming Club dis-covered that the government were planning to create a lido on their beloved lake. A deputation sought an interview with the commissioner of works, George Lansbury, a Poplar Labour politician. The result was very satisfactory in that he gave categorical assurances that all the privileges that the club had hitherto en-joyed would be respected and that admittance to the lido would remain free of charge for those engaged in club activities. The creation of the lido forced club members a little further from 'Mother Nature' (from 1930 costumes were in-sisted upon), but it did not prevent these pioneers of open-air swimming from pursuing their activities. Mr Lansbury had come to realise that being the Presi-dent of the Board of Works gave him authority over the Royal Parks including the Serpentine. It was he that proposed the building of the lido, but he had great difficulty in obtaining public funds. The main idea of the lido was to provide discreet changing facilities, so that passers-by did not have to witness the bare flesh of changing swimmers - 'indecent exposure'. In order to obtain Royal Consent, Lansbury took water samples to King George V, who personally examined them through a microscope before giving his approval for construction to commence. According to Douglas Goldring: 'So mean was the attitude of the gov-erning class that Lansbury had to fight tooth and nail against Tory obstruction to obtain for Londoners the right to bathe in their own Serpentine, in their own park.'  

Wild Swim

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reviews

 

"It is now as rare to see children swimming in canals and rivers and lakes as it is to find salmon in the Thames - yet once the country's open waters teemed with young people splashing about, especially during the school holidays. The passing of those carefree days is much mourned by Chris Ayriss in Hung Out to Dry: Swimming and British Culture. He puts most of the blame on prudery, but the swamping health and safety culture and the obsession of authority to dictate and control also have a lot to do with it" This England Winter 2010 p73

 

Contents

From Pride to Prejudice

Cleanliness Versus Godliness

Sex, Sea and Swimming Trunks

Sunny Days, Dark Shadows

Lidos Open, Rivers Close

Leicester, Swim City

The Last Stand