History of Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming Fish

wild-swimming (vb.):

1. Swimming in natural waters such as rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Often associated with picnics and summer holidays.

2. Dipping or plunging in secret or hidden places, sometimes in wilderness areas. Associated with skinny-dipping or naked swimming, often with romantic connotations.

3. Action of swimming wildly such as jumping or diving from a height, using swings and slides, or riding the current of a river.

A History of Wild Swimming

Ever since the late Roger Deakin swam through Britain by river, lake and sea the term ‘wild swimming’ has been used to describe the age-old practise of swimming in natural waters – river swimming and other outdoor swimming. In our grandparents’ day swimming holes were where people learnt to swim and congregated on a summer day – to paddle, picnic and play. Today there is a resurgence of interest in this traditional pleasure and people are learning to explore their rivers and lakes for swimming again.

Evolutionary Biology

One branch of evolutionary theory, expounded by Sir Alistair Hardy in the 1950s, suggests that being by and in water is more than just a pleasure, it is at the core of our human condition. During the ten million years of the Pliocene world droughts, while our species was busy evolving into uprightness, we did not, suggests Hardy, choose the arid deserts of Africa as our home, as mainstream evolutionists believe, but the more tempting turquoise shallows of the nearby Indian Ocean. There we became semi-aquatic coastal waders. Our subsequent life on dry land is a relatively recent and bereft affair.

Could this explain some of our more peculiar habits and features? Apart from the proboscis monkey, we are the only primate that regularly plays in water for the sheer joy of it, and whose offspring take naturally to water from birth. We are also alone in having subcutaneous fat, like a whale’s blubber, for buoyancy and warmth. We are almost hairless, like the dolphin, and what little hair remains is arranged to make us streamlined for swimming.

Perhaps this is why Greek art and mythology abounds in stories of water nymphs, naiads and sirens as magical, sexual, mischievous creatures, inhabiting their wild ‘nymphaea’: natural pools, rivers and swimming holes, so beautiful they lure unwitting mortals to their watery ends.

Nineteenth Century Romantics

As the nineteenth century dawned, a new era of contemporary European artists were rediscovering the appeal of the swimming hole. The waterfall, surrounded by trees and mountains, was now regarded as the quintessence of beauty. Wordsworth, Coleridge and de Quincy spent much time bathing in the mountain pools of the Lake District. The study and search for the ‘picturesque’ and ‘sublime’ – an almost scientific measure of loveliness and proportion in the landscape – had reached epidemic proportions. The fashionable tours ofProvence or Tuscany were replaced by trips to the valleys of Wales, and the dales of Cumbria and Yorkshire, as Turner and Constable painted a prodigious flow of falls, tarns and ponds.

As the Romantic era took hold, the water held its place in the artists’ gaze. Ruskin and others moved south to paint the river pools of Cornwall and Devon. Meanwhile, Charles Kingsley was dreaming of water babies on the Devon Dart and Henry Scott Tuke was opening his floating studio in Falmouth, painting scenes of children swimming in the river. Soon Francis Meadow Sutcliffe gained notoriety for his Water Rats photograph of naked boys, while across the Atlantic Thomas Eakins was creating a stir with his homoerotic painting of river swimming in the Swimming Hole.

Water and nudity were pushing at the boundaries of rigid Victorian society and creating space for new ideas, freedoms and creativity. Pools and springs have long been revered by our Celtic and pagan ancestors. Even the Romans built shrines to the water goddesses, and several accompany the bathhouses alongHadrian’s Wall. Fresh water was seen as a sort of interface with the spirit world, a place where miracles – or curses – could manifest. ‘Mermaid Pools’ dot our Pennine mountain tops and ancient holy wells and springs are found across the Welsh and Cornish hills. No wonder, then, when Christianity came the Britons were quick to embrace river baptism as a doorway to a new god.

Edwardian Wild and Outdoor Swimming

By the 1870s, river- and lake-based recreation was entering mainstream culture. London was expanding at a rate of knots and the middle- and working-class population woke up to the potential of the Thames, with its villages, boats and watering holes lying only a cheap rail fare away. ‘We would have the river almost to ourselves,’ recalled Jerome K. Jerome, ‘and sometimes would fix up a trip of three or four days or a week, doing the thing in style and camping out.’ In 1888 he wrote the best-selling Three Men in a Boat, which was a manifesto for a simple way of living: close to nature, with river swimming before breakfast. Ratty declared in Wind in the Willows that there ‘was nothing, simply nothing, more worthwhile than messing about in boats’ and by 1909 Rupert Brooke was writing poems about bathing in Grantchester.

It was an idyllic period. Europe had been relatively peaceful for a hundred years. It was an age of relaxed elegance, of 25-mile-a-day walking tours, sleeping under canvas, wild swims and bathing in the river. Brooke spent his days studying literature, river swimming, living off fruit and honey and commuting to Cambridge by canoe. His passion for the outdoor life was shared by writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, philosophers Russell and Wittgenstein, economist Keynes and artist Augustus John. As they swam naked at Byron’s Pool in moonlight and practised their ‘belly-floppers’ in picnic diving practice along the Cam this nucleus formed the emerging Bloomsbury Group and what Woolf later dubbed the ‘Neo-Pagans’.

Grantchester Meadows became the site of one of the first formal outdoor swimming bathing clubs in the country, with an elegant pavilion, separate changing areas and stone steps down into the warm waters of the river Cam. Similar clubs, ‘Parsons’ Pleasure’ and later ‘Dames’ Delight’, quickly followed at the Cherwell in Oxford. Soon every major public school was following suit with its own special riverside swimming facilities. By 1923 over 600 informal river swimming clubs were in existence around the country with regular inter-county river swimming competitions and galas. Henry Williamson was swimming with Tarka the Otter, and Arthur Ransome immortalised the Lake District in Swallows and Amazons. Wild-swimming and outdoor swimming had reached its heyday.

Modern Wild Swimming

The post-war years brought a great thrust of industry and development and rivers bore the brunt of the pollution. By the 1960s pesticides had driven the West Country population of otters to near extinction. It was not until new legislation was introduced in the 1970s and 1980s that the trend began to turn. Thirty years on, over 70 per cent of our rivers are in good or excellent condition again. They are hidden havens for wildlife once more, secret corridors into forgotten corners of our countryside.

For many of us this kind of communion with our ecology is moving. It’s a place to seek inspiration, intuition and peace and also to be humbled by the immensity and wonder of nature. These are places where children see their first kingfisher or find their first otter track. Here we learn to play Pooh sticks and build dams before falling asleep in the grass. Use this book to open up a fresh world of adventures, romantic escapades and family days out. The water’s fresh, so pick up, strip off and jump in!

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