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Bathing's place in our history
A TEENAGER being taught to punt — and taking a swim by mistake; a child lying on his front on the river bank and pushing about a boat made of newspaper; a family setting out across a field towards a favourite bathing place, bearing towels and the inner tube of an old tyre.
Such scenes may seem old fashioned, but I have seen them all recently. Perhaps, as the pound sinks and more of us stay at home instead of going abroad, such simple pleasures are being rediscovered, After all, the weather is getting hotter and the rivers cleaner.
But what is certain is that the official bathing places on Oxfordshire’s rivers have disappeared. Wolvercote Bathing Place, Parson’s Pleasure, Tumbling Bay, Dame’s Delight, to name but a few — all gone.
Until the middle of the last century they were such prominent municipal features, even in outlying towns, that there were some who disliked them on the grounds that they spoiled the riverside tranquillity.
Commenting on the Burford bathing place in 1946, for instance, in his book The River Windrush, Wilson MacArthur said: “Easy to imagine a hot summer’s day, the river stealing quietly in the shade of tall trees, oneself slipping quietly into the dark water, refreshing oneself in the heat of the day in some silent, lonely reach; but not — no definitely not — here among crowded bathing shelters.”
Most Oxford bathing places, including the famous Parson’s Pleasure in the University Parks, on the banks of the Cherwell, were closed down by the council in the early 1990s.
Parson’s Pleasure, originally called Patten’s Pleasure, had been in operation since the 17th century (historian Anthony à Wood records that a student was drowned there in the 1660s), and was for men only, bathing nude.
There is the story of John Sparrow, Warden of All Souls: he was standing on the river bank in his birthday suit, along with a group of other similarly un-attired dons, when a puntload of girls heaved into view. All wrapped towels around their middles except Sparrow. He explained: “I don't know about you, but most people recognise me by my face.”
The place was hidden from the University Parks by a high fence, so it could not be seen from the landward side. Ladies were supposed to disembark from punts. Nearby, in a part of the Parks called Mesopotaemia (Greek for Between two Rivers; in this case the Cherwell and the Thames, not the Tigris and Euphrates) was Dame’s Delight, founded in 1934 for ladies and children, but closed down in 1970 after flooding.
Tumbling Bay, behind the allotments on the Botley Road, consisted of a pool between two weirs on a backwater of the Thames. It was founded in the early 19th century and officially closed by the city council in 1990.
Other former official bathing places include Long Bridges, near Donnington Bridge, as well as minor ones at St Ebbes, St Clements, and Cutteslowe.
Monuments to the dangers of swimming in rivers abound — for instance the obelisk commemorating Edgar Wilson who died saving the life of two boys near Osney 120 years ago — so, obviously, care must be taken when swimming “in some silent, lonely reach”. But the sight of that family setting out for a swim took me back. I could almost feel the mud between my toes, and see the minnows scattering.