Updated: Sep 20
Abbey Park Lido
The Leicester Mercury reports: Fancy a dip in open water in this weather? To me, the mere thought of a swim in icy cold water brings me out in goose bumps – but, there are those who take the opposite view! There was a time when British swimmers once filled the lakes and waterways of England.
But things changed and these intrepid swimmers soon found themselves chased out of the water and “rounded up and confined to indoor swimming”.
Some years back, an article I featured concerning swimming in Abbey Park prompted reader Chris Ayriss, of Western Park, to contact me about a book he had written on the history of swimming, Hung Out to Dry.
Mr Ayriss’s book “traces the demise of a swimming empire”.
It also reveals “why the swimmer has been chased out of the water”.
There is a chapter on Leicester and it shows that the Abbey Park was, at one time, used as a venue for major swimming competitions.
The author gives many instances of large-scale gatherings, especially when connected with the Abbey Park Show and told me that “on show days, thousands would travel to Leicester to see the swimming events. They would line the bank of the river to cheer on their heroes in the long distance swims, of both a mile and half-a-mile.
“One report speaks of an afternoon of solid rain not dampening the enthusiasm of thousands of spectators watching the proceedings, which were the biggest draw of the show. One thousand six hundred seats were provided for the spectators at a cost of 6d each.”
Apparently Leicester also had a fearsome reputation in water polo and “these raucous events had a great following”. One match, against Derby, brought a whole trainload of supporters with it and generated as much excitement as we would see at a big football match today. The site of the old water polo matches can still be clearly identified by the steps in Tumbling Bay, adjacent to the footbridge in the centre of the park.
Mr Ayriss wrote: “Despite the fact that children were encouraged to swim elsewhere, they continued to use Abbey Park until a prohibition order chased them out of the water in 1959. “The Medical Officer of Health reported that the river was polluted to such a degree that it was unfit for bathing. “Since then, great improvements have been made regarding water quality and when I checked with the Environment Agency, the city waters were listed as of ‘good quality’ and are now suitable for bathing.” Other places in England with waters of similar quality have encouraged children to swim. They have taken simple health and safety precautions such as having a lifeguard in attendance, dredging and rodent and algae control.
Mr Ayriss suggested similar steps could be taken in Abbey Park, and asked: “Could we not reopen the gates of the footbridge so lives of children are not put at risk? Could we not take down the signs that prohibit swimming and station a lifeguard instead of a warden on the riverbank? “At one time, Leicester led the way when it came to the encouragement of swimmers. Perhaps now is the time to do something positive to remove the dangers of swimming rather than the swimmers!”