Outdoor swimming is something of a culture shock to many of the British population.
We as a nation have become so used to swimming indoors, so indoctrinated by our health and safety culture that the sight of liberated swimmers escaping to the wild seems inherently worrying to many.
For decades, a clear warning has been sounded to stay out of open water and to swim only at the indoor pool. But prior to this modern development, the freedom to swim outside was seen as everyone’s birthright.
Baden-Powell saw to it that Scouts were trained to be capable swimmers and lifesavers. Swimmers took responsibility for themselves and others and youngsters were trained to be Water Wise.
All this education had very positive results as the following exert from Hung Out to Dry reveals: ‘Philip Mead aged twelve, a pupil at East Lane council school succeeded in saving George Rowden, aged fourteen, from drowning in the Thames on June 1st 1910. The boy Rowden was swimming at the foot of East Lane stairs when he became exhausted and was carried out by the tide. The exhaustion was partly due to the strong tide and partly to his getting into the wash of a passing steamer. Philip Mead went to the lad’s assistance and succeeded in bringing him to the side. The water where the rescue was effected was twelve feet deep and a water man states: “That but for Mead’s timely aid, Rowden must have been drowned.”’
On a recent visit to London to attend the Urban Plunge exhibition, my son and I visited the location of this life saving rescue. East Lane Stairs are now out of bounds to the general public as is the beach and the London Thames when it comes to swimming.
I wonder how many 12 year old’s today would feel confident swimming in a major river, let alone be able to proficiently aid someone in difficulties and effect their rescue?
The answer would vary from country to country, but in England we have successfully deterred the majority from swimming outdoors. So forceful has been the message that we have thrown out the baby with the bath water and turned our back on mass education in water safety in favor of a blanket ban on outdoor swimming. What have been the results of this initiative?
There are an abundance of no swimming signs dotted along many river banks and lake-sides and the press chant their mantra “stay out of the water” on hot sunny days. But this does little to help the hapless angler’s, walker’s, cyclists and motorists that ends up in open water by accident; it doesn’t save their lives.
We have become so blasé about education that 1,300 primary schools don’t even bother to offer the most basic of swimming lessons, despite its compulsory listing in the National Curriculum. Those schools that make a token stab at the subject fail to produce the goods as almost half of primary school children are dispatched as seniors unable to swim a single length (25M) unaided.
The failing education system is symptomatic of a society that fails to take swimming seriously.
ASA acting chief executive, Ashley Beaveridge reminds us: “Swimming isn’t just a leisure activity or a way for young people to keep healthy, it’s a life-saving skill that every child has the right to learn.”
Compare British attitudes discussed here to those found in Switzerland by watching the short film below.
Discover more about the outdoor swimmers journey from fresh air and sunshine to indoor confinement at Hung Out to Dry!