The sport that defined Britain
Swimming, Sunbathing and Health
What could be more attractive on a hot summer's day than the thought of plunging into cool clear water and swimming outdoors? The combination of clean water, fresh air and sunshine epitomized the British Ideal, a perfect recipe for healthful outdoor living, or at least that was what we thought following the First World War. The Industrial Revolution had reshaped the social landscape of Britain. As our cities developed, they became centres of manufacturing with trade extending worldwide. As production increased year on year, the skies filled with smoke, and in winter, deadly smog blighted the lives of city dwellers. Living conditions for the working class were cramped and unhealthy. Virtual slave labour in the factories and mills took its toll on the workforce affecting their physical and mental health.
In our enlightened times the sun has been transformed from a faithful friend, the source of healthful healing rays, into a foe, likely to savage the skin of children and send the rest of us on a collision course with skin cancer. Without a doubt the sunshine days of the great British seaside did much to popularize both the lido and the beach. In the end though it spelled doom for seaside resorts around the UK as the sun shone brighter, longer, and more dependably just a short flight away in Spain!
Sunshine and Health
Things came to a head when the world was plunged into the First World War. The chronic shortage of healthy conscripts sent shock waves through the country, galvanizing the desire of philanthropists and politicians to effect sweeping changes in the post war years. Healthy outdoor living was seen as a remedy for the sickly condition of the working class. Young swimmers fulfilled the ideal, male youths, strong and confident, carried the hopes of the nation for its future security should the ugly face of war ever show itself again. Outdoor living and lido life infused British culture, as evidenced by the increasing number of swimmers heading off to the river, pool or beach on a hot summers day. Sunbathing and swimming enjoyed a brief engagement, soon to be married and embedded in the psyche of British society. But having acquired a taste for the bright life, swimmers voted with their feet and stayed away from lidos, waiting for the sun to shine before they took the plunge. The reality of the British summer swaddled the swimming season with cloud, and many Lidos reflected the lack luster attitude of its supporters. Even so we do enjoy warm summers here in England, and if the weather stays fine for more than a week, lidos fill to capacity on the weekend and our beaches echo the heyday of the holiday era back in the fifties.
Back to Nature
The link between sunshine and swimming brought an end to the early morning swim. It sparked an exodus of swimmers from the hundreds of river and lake swimming clubs into newly opened lidos which at the time was seen as both progressive and essential. Yet as holidaymakers moved abroad, Lidos fell into disuse and many have been laid to rest underneath new housing and modern developments. Cold water bathing lost its attraction and so the British seaside suffered from a prolonged period of depression. But every cloud has a silver lining; the surfing era has brought down the price of wet-suits, and now all can afford to cosset their children in a warm neoprene. Children are happy to play in our cooler summer seas whilst enjoying complete protection from the sun. Yet something still seems a little askew.
In the Sunday Times of May 29th Health Editor: Sarah-Kate Templeton, reported that our indoor lifestyle deprives us of the sunlight we need to stay healthy. Family doctors are routinely prescribing vitamin D injections to "combat conditions ranging from aches and tiredness to diabetes, arthritis and multiple sclerosis."
"Vitamin D requires sunlight to convert it from an inactive to an active form." Parents today are protecting their children from the sun so effectively that their children are reaping the same penalty as their ancestors - brought up under the polluted skies and spending much of their time indoors as child laborers of our shady past.
Risks and Benefits
Surely in our enlightened times we realise that sunlight helps prevent rickets and that it strengthen bones. According to a well publicised recent study, women who spend three hours a day in the sunshine can half their risk of breast cancer. "In order to make enough vitamin D and keep it at a steady level, a normal adult man needs to spend several hours during three afternoons per week in the sun with [his] chest exposed. The most common cause of vitamin D deficiency is a low level of skin conversion due to a lack of sunlight exposure." (Healthspan Sep/Oct 2012). Of course you face risks if you expose your skin to the sun, but it would seem that perhaps the advantages are being overlooked. As with all things in life reason and balance are preferable to extremism. In Britain we have swung from sun worship to sun dread, but outdoor swimming offers a wonderful opportunity to benefit from a little sunshine. I enjoy outdoor swimming whatever the weather, but the water always has more sparkle when the sun comes out to play!
To grasp the full impact the seaside holiday has had on swimmers read: Hung Out to Dry, Chapter 3; 'Sex, Sea and swimming trunks'.
Discover how swimmers have been disadvantaged by the sunbathing era as you read read chapter 4, 'Sunny Days, Dark Shadows' and 5 'Lidos Open, Rivers Close'.