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  • William Tyler

Swim into the Past

Perhaps some of you are sick of hearing me talk about the pleasures of swimming down here on the South Coast. But it has recently got me thinking as to when we took to swimming. With Brighton only a few miles down the coast eastwards, and Weymouth a lot further westwards, I know, as you all do, that sea swimming developed alongside the development of 'The Seaside' in the 18th century. Initially it was engaged in for health reasons, beginning with drinking seawater, progressing to taking seawater baths (often complete with health giving seaweed) then being dipped into the sea from bathing machines, and finally swimming in it.


Yet surely we swam before this. Indeed we did, and there are many mentions from the Ancient World of swimming. Perhaps it is the Romans we most associate with water, all those fabulous bath complexes. It was the soldiers of Rome who swam the most. Traditionally, they were expected to know how to swim so as the easier to cross rivers on campaign. We know from numerous sources that Caesar himself was regarded as a strong swimmer, even into his mid fifties. We also know, thanks to Plutarch, of the first swimmer in our own country. During Caesar's expeditions in 55/54 BC we hear of a Roman legionary who rushed to rescue a group of centurions surrounded by the enemy. He was the last to leave and we are told he crossed a river to rejoin his comrades (the Medway or even the Thames, perhaps) by 'partly swimming and partly wading'.


The Romans also swam for pleasure in often luxurious surroundings such as those described in his 'Letters' by Pliny the Younger. Of his villa near Rome he writes, 'the heated swimming pool which is much admired and from which swimmers can see the sea'. An early version of an infinity pool !

Of another of his villas, in Tuscany, Livy writes, '...to the cooling room, which contains a good sized shady swimming bath. If you want more space to swim or warmer water, there is a pool in the courtyard...'. Sounds like a soundbite for a Mediterranean holiday brochure.


We know the Saxons and Vikings swam but mainly in a military context. In The Middle Ages there are a few references to swimming in England; Certainly enough that we know they swam for pleasure. In a Latin work of around 1250, translated into English in 1398, we learn of the danger of deep holes in rivers caused by currents, in which, we are warned, many are drowned. Perhaps this doesn't say much for medieval swimming technique.


The first actual guide to swimming published in English came out in 1595, and was a translation by Christopher Middleton of an earlier Latin work by Everard Digby, Fellow of St Johns Cambridge. The book has delightful line drawings showing exactly what the novice had to do.


Here are just two tasters from the book,

'...then not as some, which are more bold than wise, rudely leap into the water with their feet downward .... but let him easily enter until he be covered up to the waist in water....' I fully agree.

To dive: '...if he be in a place where he may stand upon the ground, with as much force as he can, leap, and bending his head towards his breast fall forwards down into the water ....'.


Before I leave the Tudors behind, a word about professional divers. In 1545 the State employed a team of Venetian divers in an attempt to recover valuable artefacts from the wreck of 'The Mary Rose'. Thanks to Miranda Kaufmann's book, 'Black Tudors', we know that out of a team of eight divers, at least one was Africa, and possibly three were. The one we know of for certain was Jacques Francis. He was from West Africa and West Africans were prized for their diving abilities, diving, for example, in their homeland for gold in Ghana and cowrie shells in The Congo. We know that they could dive to a depth of 90 feet. They certainly used diving bells to achieve these great depths.


So, what do we know about pre-18th century swimming in England:

1. It was overwhelmingly a male activity

2. It was done in the nude

The first reference to Parson's Pleasure on the River Cherwell in Oxford comes from 1689. This was male nude bathing and the name of the stretch of water perhaps needs no explanation! It was stopped in 1991 in the cause of public decency. And before you ask, no I didn't.

3. Corks and bladders were used in teaching swimming and also as an aid to swimming.

4. Swimming was done in rivers, lakes, and ponds - almost never the sea. After all no sailor or fisherman worth the name would ever have learnt to swim; A swift death was much preferred if a boat or ship sank.


Must finish now, the waves beckon ...........

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