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r&d project initiated by Urbonas Studio in collaboration with Tracey Warr
August 16th, 2012

Memories of swimming in Oxford

from Jenny Rogers

I was born in Oxford in 1952, and spent as much of my childhood as I could immersed in the Thames or the Cherwell.

Our Mum used to take us for picnics by the river Thames, and we swam from what seemed to us to be miniature beaches. I had learned to swim in a river in France, at about six, and so it always seemed entirely natural to me. As far as I was concerned, that was what rivers were there for! I have never liked indoor pools, though outdoor pools are reasonably ok. But river swimming, and sea swimming, are what it is really all about.

We lived in North Oxford and went to secondary school in Marston (Milham Ford), and we had permission to wheel our bikes through the University Parks, from where we whizzed down the Rainbow Bridge and sped along a rough foot-path, coming out into Edgeway Road, and then Marston Road.

On our way home in the summer we often swam in the river, throwing our bikes down on the ground, and changing into our swimming things under the arches of the Rainbow bridge. These swimming things were usually wet from having been used during the day in the school pool, and I can still remember the smell of the chlorine on them, and the feeling of putting on a wet and clingy costume! Still, nothing would have stopped us from swimming whenever we could.

As the water was shallow and muddy at the edges, and you couldn’t see beneath the surface, we used to dive straight in, doing a very flat dive so that we did not go too deep too soon, and throwing ourselves as far out into the middle of the river as we could, where the water was deeper. There were blackened and gnarled tree roots under the water near the bank, so we wanted to avoid hitting our legs on these as we dived in. One of our friends hit her leg in this way, and had a massively impressive swollen bruise on her shin for the rest of the summer, as a reminder to us all.

Getting out was interesting, you had to put your feet down into the mud and tree-roots, and get near the bank, and somehow haul yourself out by clutching handfuls of grass. Needless to say you could end up pretty muddy, and have to work out ways of getting the mud out from between your toes, so you could get your socks and shoes back on.

On days when there was no school, we regularly walked through the University Parks and across to Dames’ Delight. This was a river bathing place surrounded by corrugated-iron fences that even projected under the water – so you dared not try to get under them by swimming. I think we all grew up on stories of children who had been dragged under water by sinister water weed which had wrapped itself round their legs and never let go. The thought of their pale bloated bodies being found downstream days later made us a bit wary of taking risks where there was the possibility of underwater entanglements.

You had to pay to go into Dames’ Delight, and once inside the corrugated-iron enclosure, there were raised wooden walkways, changing huts, ladders, and even diving-boards. It was the river, with all the river’s smells and hidden mysteries, but easier to get in and out of.  Dames’ Delight was for families, but of course you had to wear swimming costumes – or as my friend’s mother, to my friend’s great embarassment, insisted on calling hers, her “bathing-dress”.

Just round the bend in the river, Parsons’ Pleasure, the all-male bathing place, was another matter. There, so we heard, nakedness was compulsory. We wondered, as only teenage girls can, what shocking sights were concealed behind the corrugated-iron fences of Parsons’ Pleasure! Sometimes we would take a punt out from Tim’s Boathouse – leaving one of our beloved old scratched watches as a deposit as we never had much money on us – and if we went near Parsons’ Pleasure, we saw the sign that said that ‘ladies’ were supposed to get out of the punt and walk up over the grass, and rejoin the punt later, so that the fence would always be between them and anything inappropriate. Meanwhile the ‘gentlemen’ took the punt past the naked bathers. I seem to remember the conflict about how you would manage when you were in a punt full of girls, with no gentleman to help out. How we dealt with this eventuality is now – thankfully – lost in the mists of time!

We also swam at times from punts, or from any part of the river where we could get access. I had a friend whose aunt owned a river-garden – where there was a huge and glorious changing-hut as big as some people’s living-room, filled with mysterious smells of mildewed sun-beds and damp towels – and then a green lawn sweeping down to the edge of the Cherwell. There was a punt there too, that we sometimes took out. It felt extraordinary to me to be able to occupy this magical garden with its very own stretch of river-bank, and only share it with friends.

The swim I will never forget – perhaps one of my last Oxford river swims – was after dark, naked, off the banks of the river, in 1968 or 1969, at the edge of a buttercup meadow where Wolfson College was shortly to be built. I was about to go off to university – from where I did not return to Oxford to live until last year.

Last year, after we moved here, I visited the bathing place that was behind the St. Clements Church, where you can still see the concrete edges, and even the steps. The centre was quite overgrown with water-lilies, and there were swans gliding about slowly on it.

The two river swims I have had were in the old Tumbling Bay bathing place, behind the Botley Road Allotments. Interestingly I never swam here as a child, but I knew the name, and it conjured up such an exciting picture. The river still flows in at one end and out at the other, and there are fronds of various weeds to be seen stretching out in the current. A large fish hung in the water by the steps as I got in, and looked at my white leg with interest. I had decided not to dive in, as there are possibly – almost certainly – submerged objects there. Shopping trolleys seem to be the curse of rivers and canals now.

I am 60 now, but still fascinated by the idea of river bathing. I mourn the passing of the River Bathing Places that gave us such simple pleasures for so many years, and helped us to grow up strong and fit. In these days of obsession with Health and Safety, and law-suits against councils, I fear these delights are gone forever. I am a bit unsure why, as we are told the rivers are cleaner now than they were then. I would give a lot to see them opened again, and children discovering the delights of outdoor swimming.

I hope – as all outdoor swimmers do – that there will be a glorious end to the summer, and a chance to swim again before the Autumn comes. And I have to hope that, even if the old bathing places will not be returned to us, for our use, that no-one will ever try to stop us from immersing ourselves in the beautiful rivers of Oxford, one way or another!


by tracey | Posted in swimmers | No Comments » |


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