1938 Summer Swimming Relays in River Cherwell
Oxford, the centre of learning, has a Wild Swimming history stretching back hundreds of years.
The History of swimming in Oxford
As Britain led the world into a new association with water wild swimming came back into vogue and people countrywide began using natural ponds, lakes and rivers for their wild swimming adventures. In Oxford, Parson’s Pleasure had been in use since the 16th century. The site still holds echoes of its past as does its companion: Dames’ Delight. Parson’s Pleasure officially came to its end in the mid 1990s, but cultural change started its slow death long before that. The fencing has now all gone, along with the diving board. A concrete base is all that is left of the fun, like a memorial stone on the now deserted lawns, the remains lie on the opposite bank to University Parks, Holywell. A bench in the grounds bears a plaque memorializing ‘…Mr H N Spalding a lover of Parson’s Pleasure who gave to the university the fields opposite the bathing place in order to preserve the view.’ It was traditional for men and boys to bathe here in the nude. Naturally, it was screened from view on all sides and as you might expect, ladies were to either avert their eyes as they passed by in punts, or better still, to get out of the punt and walk around the fencing. C S Lewis apparently loved the place, as did many dons and undergraduates. In later times, speculation developed as to the interests of those using Parson’s Pleasure and indeed, as its popularity declined, it became a magnet for suspicions. According to Cities Of The Imagination: ‘By the end, the only men who went there were those who wanted to expose themselves to passing punts and those who delighted in the company of naked young men.’
Swimmers at Tumbling Bay in 1959
The history of swimming in Oxford well illustrates changes seen across Britain. The British Isles are surrounded and saturated with waterways which should be a delight for swimmers, yet the history of swimming reveals that the British have gone to great lengths to separate swimmers from the natural world. Today swimmers are mostly confined to indoor pools and the swimmers experience is a far cry from the freedom, fun and adventure associated with swimming in the recent past. Read Hung Out to Dry and discover why the experience of swimmers has changed so much and what this says about us as a nation and about our culture.
“A persuasive book… intriguing from the outset, a fascinating chronology of British swimming which goes much deeper than one might expect. Well researched and interestingly written… the historical ebb and flow of swimming popularity is quite remarkable.” The Swimming Times November 2012