Today, swimmers across Europe will be jumping into their local rivers at 3 pm, in a coordinated celebration of successful EU water protection legislation. Sadly in the UK we lag behind the rest of Europe in taking up this challenge to jump in and enjoy our clean rivers, as many of us are still doubtful about the health and safety of open water swimming. In our ‘enlightened’ times we love to be told what to do and how to do it, and as there will be no lifeguard standing on the riverbank most will be content with just ‘tut tutting’ at what many see as simply another English eccentricity.
Through the last 100 years, British culture has seen a complete overhaul in attitudes towards open water swimming. In my home city of Leicester we once had 8 Corporation run riverside Lidos. During the summer, Sundays saw thousands take the plunge as a matter of course. It’s hard to grasp just how much British attitudes towards swimming have changed. The Serpentine lake in Hyde Park London overflowed with swimmers, so much so that by October 1911, 275,745 had been counted as swimming in the lake. The Victoria Park Bathing Lake attracted 25,000 bathers on a summers morning. We have gone from complete acceptance and encouragement for open water swimming to the adoption of distrustful misconceptions. Many here in the UK see river swimming as dangerous and river waters as an unclean health hazard. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Despite all this negativity the Outdoor Swimming Society have been encouraging swimmers to take part in this annual event now in its fourth consecutive year.
Discover the history of outdoor British swimming by reading: Hung Out to Dry, Swimming and British Culture by Chris Ayriss