Until the notorious occasion when their summer slumbers were interrupted by the sound of a punt full of exuberant young ladies making its boisterous way downstream. Shocked out of their naked torpor, the dons instinctively reached down to cover their modesty. All, that is, with one exception: an eminent philosopher who put his hands up to his head. The logic, he later explained, was that his face was probably more easily recognisable in Oxford than other parts of his wrinkled anatomy.
The anecdote has doubtless been embellished over the course of many retellings, but it reminds us that there once was a time (right up to 1992 in fact) when catching the rays was a fashionable donnish activity. (Not to be outdone, the University ladies developed an equivalent leisure site on the other bank of the river, an area which became known as Dame’s Delight – although the dames in question were required to wear costumes.)
The penchant for nude bathing seems to have waned in recent decades; but messing about on, beside, and above all in the river is as popular than ever. People have taken to Oxford’s waters since time immemorial – at places with magical names like Whirley Pool, Footman’s Bath, Boney’s Bridge, Sunnymead, Deep Martin and Fiddler’s Island. Along the bigger stretches of riverbank the current could be treacherous, so it was the myriad by-waters and side streams created beside locks and weirs, mills and millponds which became the paddling places of choice. John Keats, writing to a friend in 1817, recalled ‘more clear streams than ever I saw together … more in number than your eyelashes’.
Official river bathing places were first authorised in Oxford in the 1840s. With the coming of mechanised industry and the rapid growth of the urban population, much of it packed into cramped and sooty housing, the desire to go for a refreshing dip was rapidly accelerated. Bathing pools and changing huts were built to cater for the new clientele. By the time of the first world war there were three such municipal facilities on the Isis: at St Ebbe’s (closed now and long since filled in but still visible in traces beneath Oxpens meadow), Long Bridges (near the current Donnington Bridge), and Tumbling Bay (north of what is now Botley Park). Concrete and lumpen, not to say brutalist, these bathing stations may not have been much to look at, but black and white photographs of the time show them packed out with happy, splashy children in knitted swimwear.
Then, after the second world war, came the rise of chlorination. Swimming turned inward. Roofs closed over the skies. Turquoise pools sprouted up in Temple Cowley and Marston Ferry. Gyms and leisure centres proliferated. The swimming lanes became congested with begoggled exercise-fiends, clamorous school children, and mother-and-baby clubs, while the old bathing places cracked, grew weeds and fell into disrepair.
Until, one day, sick of anti-verruca footbath and craving the sights and sounds of nature, a few bold spirits decided to return to the open waters. Thus was launched ‘wild swimming’. It is a pastime which has grown and grown, especially since the covidien summers of 2020/21.
The Outdoor Swimming Society was established in 2006, its mission to ‘share the swim love, bringing outdoor swimming into the mainstream’. Nothing seems to get in its way, not even the grotesque pumping of raw sewage into our once crystal waters (more about this and about the Red Brigade protests it has inspired in a future Morris Oxford Story.)