In days gone by, children, the elderly and even Oxford dons would swim in the county’s waterways unencumbered and sometimes un-clothed. But the passion for outdoor swimming dried-up with the emergence of indoor pools. Now, open water or ‘wild’ swimming is making a splash once more. Debbie Waite reports
A summer’s evening can attract upwards of 200 swimmers to Queenford Lakes at Berinsfield, just outside Oxford.
Not tempted in the slightest by the clear water, roped-off lanes and chlorine cleanliness of the county’s indoor pools, these are ‘open water’ or ‘wild’ swimmers.
Aged from 16 to 70-something, some are athletes in training, while others are just looking for a leisurely swim in a cool lake in all its natural glory.
And their numbers are rising.
Oxford Wakeboard & Ski Club (OWSC) started offering open water swimming at Queenford Lakes three years ago and has seen the number of swimmers rise from 30 to over 200 a day.
Former British Waterski and Wakeboard (BWSW) head coach and current under 21 team captain, Steve Glanfield, runs OWSC.
He said: “I think the growth in open water swimming is due to a combination of the Olympic legacy, the popularity of triathlon and basically the fact that people enjoy being in a beautiful lake with no lanes.
“Safety is a priority. We have someone on the dock with binoculars and three kayaks in the water with the swimmers, and people swim as little or as far as they wish.”
He added: “With a good summer forecast we could see even more people coming and trying it out.”
Swimming in open water has a long and colourful history dating back as far as 36BC, when the Japanese organised the first open water races.
The Romans held races on the Tiber, when thousands would crowd along the banks to watch and cheer.
The beginning of the modern age of open water swimming is often taken to be May 3, 1810, when Lord Byron swam several miles to cross the Hellespont, now known as the Dardanelles. from Europe to Asia.
Some 80 years later, the first edition of the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, saw the swimming competition held in open water. And by the 1920s and 1930s outdoor swimming was a popular leisure activity in Britain, giving rise to many still-existent swimming clubs.
But health and safety laws changed public opinion and convinced many that open water was dirty and dangerous.
And the rise of public swimming baths saw many lidos closed forever.
The tide started to turn again when the 2000 Olympic Games featured a triathlon with a 1500m swim leg.
The trickle of interest then turned into a surge of enthusiasm with the International Olympic Committee’s decision to include a 10km race in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Since then, the UK and the world have seen huge growth in the number of people swimming ‘wild’ for sport, leisure and charity.
The Outdoor Swimming Society was founded to re-establish river swimming clubs across the country and its Oxford branch is its longest running regional group.
Its members spend a great deal of time on the Thames, which they see as ‘a great big swimming highway’ and they also explore tributaries like the Windrush.
Sefryn Penrose took over Oxford OSS in 2010 and has helped turn a handful of members into a Facebook community of almost 250.
About a hundred regularly enjoy weekend swims, full moon swims, snow swims, silent swims and for the last three years, an attempt to swim the Thames, which last summer reached its goal at Teddington Lock in London.
She said: “I think many people have been told open water swimming is ‘unsafe and dangerous’ for too long, have just become more brave, and have just started doing it.
“The triathlon movement has obviously played a part, and so has the internet.
“You can now simply Google a stretch of water and see where it is safe to swim, download maps and probably find that people are probably already doing it there.”
She said: “Outdoor swimming is also a very sociable pastime – Once you have ‘got naked’ together on a riverbank you tend to become friends quickly.
“People swim together, encourage each other and even those who are not the strongest swimmers, like me, achieve things we would never have dreamed of.
“Outdoor swimming simply has everything; the rush of adrenaline from the cold water, the wildlife, the amazing way you are actually seeing your country and a very elemental sense of what your body can do in water.”
Know your body’s reactions
Katia Vastiau, 41, pictured, of Marsh Baldon, spent much of her youth representing Belgium in the breast stroke.
But after moving to Britain, the mum and self-employed marketing analyst swapped blue water for open water.
She explained: “Three years ago I joined the Oxford Triathlon club’s swim sessions and a few months later I heard they were starting open water sessions.
“I’d only ever done one race in a lake, when I was 12. But I bought a wetsuit on eBay, went for a swim and that was it. I entered my first race in 20 years the following week.”
She said: “The appeal is simple – amazing places, fresh air, friendly groups of swimmers, no chlorine, freedom, peace. And all you need really is a bright swimming hat, goggles, a swimsuit and a swimming wetsuit.
“Like anything, it carries risks, but if you are well aware of these and don’t act recklessly it is a safe sport. Lakes are supervised and there are teams on safety duty all through the swims.”
“Experience is key and you know your body’s reactions and get out before you get too cold. I went into the lake for the first time this year last weekend and it was 9C. It was total bliss.”
‘The dark water was completely alien to me’
Julie Evans, 66, pictured, from Bicester tried her first open water swim four years ago and froze with fear.
She explained: “I have always been a sporty person and signed up for the Great North Swim at Windermere. Of course I had to train. But the first time I got into a lake I freaked.
“For the first time, I completely understood how children who are scared of the water feel; I got in, wearing a wetsuit for the first time and wondered ‘What on earth am I doing here?’ “I suppose it was the fear of the unknown. After swimming in pools where I could always see the bottom, the dark water of the lake was completely alien to me.
“I could not even put my face in the water that first time. But I persevered and swam a short distance that day.
“I kept with it and soon I loved it. I now swim outdoors regularly, have taken part in races and have even been on a swimtrek holiday to the Red Sea in Egypt.”
‘You must keep track of where you are’
Artist Lisa Curtis, 28, main picture, is originally from Falmouth in Cornwall, and has enjoyed sea swimming from an early age, even at Christmas.
After moving to Oxford four years ago she went in search of open water.
She said: “Ever since I was little I have loved swimming in the sea – the waves, the wildness and even the salt, which helps keep you afloat.
“There were even times last summer when I swam without a wetsuit, which seemed to horrify some of the triathletes. But the first time I wore a wetsuit it felt incredible – it really improves buoyancy.
“There’s no salt in the lake of course, although there are reeds and other things in the water which can be a bit spooky to start with, but once you get used to it, it’s fine.
“You also have to be sensible about how far you swim in open water, because you can’t just swim to the side easily and jump out, and you have to swim back afterwards.
“You need to keep track of where you are and breathing with your head facing forward, not to the side, helps you do this. But the feeling of being in the cool water, in beautiful surroundings is wonderful.”
- Most of Oxford’s outdoor bathing places, including the famous Parson’s Pleasure in the University Parks, were closed down in the early 1990s.
- Parson’s Pleasure, originally called Patten’s Pleasure, had been in operation since the 17th century, and was for men only, bathing nude.
- CS Lewis, inset, apparently loved the place, as did many dons and undergraduates. The pool 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 and walk around the fence to preserve everyone’s modesty.
- Nearby was Dame’s Delight, founded in 1934 for ladies and children, but that was 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 closed in 1990.
- Other former official bathing places include Long Bridges, near Donnington Bridge, as well as minor ones at St Ebbe’s, St Clement’s, and Cutteslowe.
Taking the plunge to help the homeless
Sam Scott, pictured, and his dad David have been inspired by a famous relative to begin open water swimming and are taking the plunge with a swim to help homeless people in Oxford.
Sam, 24, from Oxford and David, 58, from Witney believe they are related to the famed swimmer and sailor Captain Matthew Webb.
Webb was the first recorded person to swim the English Channel without the use of artificial aids, swimming from Dover to Calais in less than 22 hours on August 25, 1875.
Sam Scott, bookings officer at the Old Fire Station arts venue in Oxford, said: “Dad and I have always fancied open water swimming and tried it for the first time last summer at the ruins at Minster Lovell – and we loved it. You come out feeling so full of energy and revitalised. The homeless charity Crisis has its base at the Old Fire Station where I work and I have been really impressed with the work they do. So when I saw they were holding a fundraising open swim I knew it was a great change for us to get us going in the sport.”
The Crisis Springtime Swim hopes to attract 200 people to Queenford Lakes on April 13 and Sam and David will dress as Victorian adventurers for the event, in homage to Captain Webb. Sponsor them at uk.virginmoneygiving.com /team/DangerousBrothers.