How times have changed!
The Bathing Lake, Victoria Park, London. Described by Lieutenant-Colonel Sexby as foremost among the park’s facilities! ‘As many as 25,000 bathers have been counted on a summer’s morning.’ The lake was open to swimmers between 4.00-8.00 a.m. in the summer; the early hours ensured that the working day was not impeded.
Sexby continues: ‘What an incalculable boon open air swimming-baths like those provided here must prove to the neighborhood! The principle bathing-lake is 300 feet long. It is provided with a concrete bottom, shelters, and diving-boards, and all the accessories to make it a perfect out-door swimming-bath, and it has been pronounced the finest in the world. In case of accidents, two boatmen are always on duty during the season, which is a necessary precaution when the number of bathers is taken into account.’ Nearby a play park and a sand pit were well maintained despite the high costs in order to brighten the lives of local children. The park was used by swimmers from 1846.
How though did it feel to be part of the picture back then? Did the boys love it or hate it?
Recalling his time spent studying at Oxford William Woodruff recalls: “I rented a canoe called Ruby, which I regularly paddled to Godstow or Kings Lock. There I stripped off and swam. It was pure animal pleasure. ‘You’s a silly, ****** fool you is. You’ll break your ****** neck, you will,’ the lock-keeper bawled as I dived into the roaring water which flung itself over the weir into the rock-studded pool.
Deaf to all caution, my body shot across the bottom like a trout. There are moments in life, like diving off a weir gate, which you never forget. Youth and spring together invite madness. I wallowed in the bliss of being alive. In those days God was everywhere. Every morning, while Jim was in Chapel, I cycled to Port Meadow, stripped off and swam with the swans as my companions. Only those who have bathed in the crowded lake in Victoria Park would know the joy.”
From: Beyond Nab End by William Woodruff