It’s always worth reminding oneself of the benefits of a philosophical education.

Parson’s Pleasure is a secluded stretch of grass embankment leading down to the River Cherwell at the point, just before you reach the land known as Mesopotamia, where the water curls south and makes for Magdalen Bridge. It was here, boarded off from the public gaze behind a high wooden fence, that dons of a naturist proclivity were wont to sunbathe naked and undisturbed …

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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 more 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.)

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Friends Groups have been revived. There is talk of rebuilding Tumbling Bay, and even of creating a beach at Long Bridges. The beach at Wolvercote has recently been awarded ‘official bathing status’ – only the second river-bathing spot in the entire UK to be so designated. (Which doesn’t mean the stream is any cleaner, alas; simply that a lot of people choose to swim there so the water quality has to be monitored for harmful pollutants.)

Everyone has their own outdoor swimming style and preference. Some, like the hydrologist Eleanor Blyth, author of Swimming Through Oxford, enjoy floating gently downstream, letting the current move them in a meditative way. Others prefer to swim in a shoal, and several clubs have been formed to encourage this. Some (mostly women it would seem) immerse themselves every single day of the year, occasionally in sub-zero temperatures, as part of their Wim Hof routine.

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Some make the river a focus for seasonal swimming rituals; last year’s DODO (December Outdoor Dip Oxford) attracted more than forty hardy souls bent on Yuletide inundation. Teenagers love to dive-bomb into the waters from the footbridge at Port Meadow. Others enjoy the bracing depth of the gravel pit lakes of Hinksey and the nearby outdoor swimming pools created from the old filter beds adjoining the former waterworks/ pumping station at Lake Street.

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There are so many ways to get wet! And so many watery tales to tell. For now, let’s end our aquatic journey with a moment of gentle immersion. The following recollection comes from L.T.C. Rolt’s fine book The Thames: from Mouth to Source:

‘An experience during our stay at Godstow, which seems of little account in the telling, will … remain with me most vividly when all other recollections of the Thames have faded. The occasion was merely a bathe in the river at midnight. The last of the patrons of the nearby Trout Inn had long ago departed on his noisy way, and the night was not only silent but breathlessly still and very warm. It was also very dark, for the sky was completely overcast. Only in the far west over the river there appeared an occasional swift flicker of summer lightning; not the rending, blinding flash of imminent storm but its pale echo reflected momentarily between cloud and water. This light, whose source was neither moon nor star nor sun, seemed to possess an apocalyptic quality; it suggested that the dark horizon it revealed in such sudden and fleeting chiaroscuro might be no part of our familiar earth, but the rim of some strange world towards which our course was set. And as I swam through the cool water, making as little noise as possible, I experienced a curious feeling, exalting yet at the same time humbling, of becoming for a moment a part of this great river, ever changing yet always the same, eternally dying in the sea because it is eternally renewed’.

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Aqua-photographic thanks to Rory Carnegie and Eleanor Blyth (middle hat, featured image)

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George Townsend, Marta Lomza (Museum of Oxford) and Hunter Charlton (Ember Audio) have collaborated to create a series of four podcasts:

In the first episode we plot out the beginnings and endings of Oxford’s historic bathing places in time and space. The three episodes that follow cover everything from bygone swimwear and magnet fishing, to paddling with ponies and snorkelling for submerged treasure…

Raising awareness of the history of Oxford’s historic bathing places – most of which are at least a century old – is a crucial element of a wider movement to protect, maintain and adapt them for the future. To keep up-to-date with efforts to look after these precious, historically significant community spaces, follow the Tumbling Bay Preservation Society and the newly formed Oxford Bathing Places Coalition on Facebook.

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Any watery topic gives us an excuse to mention the Jericho Singers and Rivers Run:
The evocative names of bathing places listed in the recent Dive In exhibition at the Museum of Oxford, reminded us of a poem by the master sonneteer Malcolm Guite. We invited him to share it with us.

Whirley Pool, Sunnymead, Deep Martin … The evocative names catalogued in the Morris Oxford list of bathing places made me think of a book written by the nature writer Robert Macfarlane a while ago entitled The Lost Words. It’s about the everyday nature words jettisoned from the Oxford Junior Dictionary because they are no longer used by enough children to merit inclusion. Words like catkin, acorn, cowslip and otter, have been culled in order to make room for words like broadband, chatroom, and celebrity. For blackberry read Blackberry! For apple read Apple! I felt there was a poem waiting to be uttered just in the sheer listing and lost sounds in these lovely names, so I set them, as they were, and in their order, in this lament.

A Lament for Lost Words

To graceful names and lovely woods farewell
To acorn, adder, ash, to beech and bluebell,
Farewell old friends I name you in my sonnet
Buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet
Farewell, your fields are brick, our books are barren
No dandelion or fern, hazel or heron
We’ll go no more alone, no more together
The mountain thyme is gone and gone the heather
The clinging ivy‘s gone and soon to go
The kingfisher‘s blue bolt, the mistletoe
Nectar, newt, and otter, pasture, willow
To their last rites my muse comes footing slow
We’ll hear no more the heaven-scaling lark
We’ll all go down together in the dark.

We were honoured to receive this footage of Malcolm Pryce, novelist, taking to the waters of Oxford.
Graham Harding, author of a forthcoming book about Port Meadow, writes to tell us of a nineteenth-century attempt to police bathing.

Did you know that a policeman was once installed on Port Meadow to deter bathing? Presumably his intended targets were the many young men from Jericho escaping a hard day’s inky work in the printing presses of OUP and heading for the waters around Fiddler’s Island. Perhaps they were considered a little boisterous and antisocial?

I’m told there were further attempts all along the river to try to discourage bathing – partly on grounds of safety, but mostly one suspects on grounds of perceived anti-social behaviour – and the possibility that the swimmers might also do some fishing while they were at it? – GH

George Townsend, curator of the recent Dive In exhibition, almost made a tantalizing discovery.

I was recently trying to chase up the location of an old Parson’s Pleasure warning sign (NO LADIES PERMITTED etc) that was formerly owned by the late sculptor Michael Black, having been salvaged from the demolition wreckage in 1992.

I met Michael very early on in the project and he showed it to me then – appropriately it was positioned above his bath (though he had never been a PP regular himself).

I returned to the Black family house on Chalfont Road a few months ago in case the house was still owned by the family, but found it had been sold on and was being renovated by the new owner.

I got chatting to a neighbour and explained my mission to him. He put me in touch with Michael’s son and explained that, though he and his wife have never been river swimmers, they had been friends with Iris Murdoch and her husband and recalled the latter pair being regular swimmers in the Thames.

We didn’t locate the sign in the end, sadly – it would have been great to have in the display! – GT

Mention of Iris Murdoch reminds us of her verdict (‘Taking the Plunge’, The New York Review of Books, March 1993) on the swimming pool as ’just a machine to exercise in’, unlike the ‘very poetical’ experience of river bathing:

I am not in the athletic sense a keen swimmer, but I am a devoted one. On hot days in the Oxford summer my husband and I usually manage to slip into the Thames a mile or two above Oxford, where the hay in the water meadows is still owned and cut on the medieval strip system. The art is to draw no attention to oneself but to cruise quietly by the reeds like a water rat: seeing and unseen from that angle, one can hear the sedge warblers’ mysterious little melodies, and sometimes a cuckoo flies cuckooing over our heads, or a kingfisher flashes past. Very poetical. And how much more so than a swimming pool, which is just a machine for exercising in.

Few aspects of the modern world are without a gender dimension. As with our Allotments Story, the history of river swimming throws up some prime examples of changing attitudes and sexual stereotypes. Alice Bracewell writes:

At first (as far as we can gather) river swimming was confined to men and boys, who bathed naked. When the first municipal bathing places were constructed in the nineteenth century women petitioned to have an opportunity to use them. The request was slowly and somewhat grudgingly conceded, but only in certain restricted places and at certain (largely inconvenient) times.

As Malcolm Graham writes: ‘In 1899, a petition from 261 women in East Ward requested more convenient hours for bathing or a special bathing place for females; plans were subsequently drawn up for a women’s bathing place adjacent to the men’s one at Long Bridges and these were approved in April 1900 following the receipt of a further petition from 1,717 people, all but ten of whom were women. This long-awaited facility was opened in August, but the only covered pool in the city was, and continued to be for many years, the privately-owned Merton Street swimming bath opened in 1869.’

After further petitioning, separate women’s pools were built. Then, in 1936, came the dramatic moment when women and men were allowed to bathe together. Swimming costumes, which up to that point had been more or less unisex, started to become differentiated by gender. Men dispensed with vests and wore shorts alone. Women’s costumes developed halter-necks and more sculpted body shapes. Colour and decoration were introduced. A new era of swimming – and swimming fashion – was born. – AB

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Fran Monks is an all-year-round swimmer and photographer. She somehow manages to capture the bracing exhilaration of it all in this series of images:

She writes:

I have been swimming in the Thames around the year since I first moved to Oxford in 2011. The winter months are surprisingly joyful. Meeting with a friend and overcoming the body’s natural reluctance to enter the freezing water brings the reward of a day-long glow. I wanted to try and convey the feeling of swimming in the river by making some portraits. Kind companions agreed to dunk their heads under the surface. The cold made it hard for them to control their expressions. I think these pictures start to give a sense of the all-encompassing experience that has attracted so many new fans of late. – FM

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Not all waterborne stories are happy ones, alas. Over the century the rivers of Oxford have claimed many lives. Professor Steven Gunn of Merton College heads a major research project exploring Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in Sixteenth-Century England. He writes:

Of all the hazard-related fatalities in Tudor England, drowning was the biggest single cause – a staggering 40% of accidental deaths occurred in the water (compared with 2% today). Most of these happened in the process of working (washing, fishing, fetching water) of course, rather than recreational swimming – though there do seem to be one or two examples of the latter.

It’s not strictly speaking Oxford, but Eleanor Blyth draws our attention downstream to a tragedy with dramatic consequences:

One of several young men who drowned at Sandford Pools, four miles or so downstream from Oxford where the Thames is at its most dangerous, was Michael Llewelyn Davies, a foster son of J.M. Barrie – possibly the child who inspired him to write the Peter Pan character. A monument marks the spot.

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There’s more about the ‘Sandford Lasher’ on the excellent Dark Oxfordshire website, which also features the Legend of Black Jack’s Hole.
Closer to home, Joanna Innes reminds us of another tragedy.

Morris Oxford readers walking along the Thames River towpath near Osney will have noticed an obelisk by the junction of the Thames and the Bullstake Stream. It commemorates a young man, Edgar George Wilson, who in 1889 jumped into the river to rescue two boys who had got into difficulty. The boys were saved, but he, tragically, drowned.

We all know about the Right to Roam. What about the Right to Swim?

Throughout history, important rivers, have been “contested spaces”, and none more so than in Oxford. Whereas previously millers, boaters, and fishermen vied for access to the water, in later centuries swimmers joined punters and rowers in seeking to use it for recreation.

Perhaps inevitably confrontation ensued and the language of rights was invoked.
I was interested, at the Museum exhibition, to read this letter from George Augustus Rowell to the Mayor of Oxford in 1849:

“I contend that the freemen and their children have a right to bathe in the stream. I claim this right for myself, and on Saturday evening took my boy who bathed there. I shall again during this week, together with several other freemen, take our boys to bathe in the stream, and abide the consequences …“ –DE

Liz Woolley points out that ‘There’s still time to catch the Museum of Oxford’s excellent temporary exhibition, Dive In: A History of River Swimming in Oxford, which runs until 30 September’.
There’s a fascinating blog on the Museum of Oxford website, written by Iulia Costache and based on George Townsend’s doctoral thesis, A Cultural History of Parson’s Pleasure (2022).
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Our thanks to Mark Davies, as ever:

I came across an entry in Charles Dickens Jnr’s Dictionary of the Thames (1893) in which he advocates designated public bathing places in order ‘to prevent the compromising situations which too frequently mar the pleasures of a picnic or boating party’ – bearing in mind that these were ‘very often largely consisting of ladies’ – caused by the habit of ‘the rowing man to cast his flannels from him, and plunge into the river in puris naturalibus oblivious or careless of the fact that after the bath a certain amount of drying becomes necessary.’ – MD

Renowned publisher, Andrew Schuller, has memories of his schooldays on and in the river.

As kids we used to spend all summer in the river Cherwell, either at the Dragon School or at the Rhea which was a Lady Margaret Hall boathouse with a landing stage, just as the river curves left after the Dragon. Sometimes parents came and picnicked with us.

Just over the fence from the boathouse was a high diving board. I don’t think I ever dared dive from the top. Along the river edge there were about four or five stations from each of which boys would be dangled in the water, encased in a circle of leather attached to a pole held by a master. That’s how we learnt to swim.

The first test was to swim across the river and back in swimming trunks – which, at that time, were woollen and very heavy when wet. I had a hand-me-down pair that were a bit too big and dragged down to my knees which didn’t make swimming any easier. The second test was to swim across and back fully clothed. At the end of the summer term there was a sort of water festival.

I remember family picnics upriver with cows in the background. My father became an unintentional swimmer when, like many punters, he stuck to the pole for rather too long, but that’s another story … ALS

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Mention of Parson’s Pleasure stirred donnish reflections:

What you say about Parson’s Pleasure (where I was never to be seen – promise) reminds me of a delicious sub-plot in one of J.I.M. Stewarts five-part series of novels, A Staircase in Surrey – very obviously based on Christ Church (Peckwater Quad). The Madonna of the Astrolabe is the fourth in the series and centres around the providential discovery of a Renaissance masterpiece just when the college is wondering how to get the money to repair its magnificent chapel tower. As a very funny subplot there is the search to identify the undergraduate who has been taking pictures of naked dons in Parson’s Pleasure and publishing them in a satirical student rag – entitled Priapus! Prof John Morrill FBA (Trinity)

Monsignor Ronald Knox, a Roman Catholic Chaplain to the University in the 1930s had – perhaps surprisingly – a very good sense of balance. (He enjoyed walking on garden rollers, for instance). He was therefore adept at exploring – in a kayak or similar boat – the ‘hidden streams’ under the city. He started with the ones in the memorial gardens between St Aldates and Christ Church Meadow because they were close to the Chaplaincy.

The Parson’s Pleasure story features not a nameless philosopher, but the great wit and character Maurice Bowra, Warden of Wadham 1938-1970. He is supposed to have exclaimed, ‘I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford I, at least, am known by my face!’ – Revd Richard Smail (Corpus Christi and Brasenose)

Never mind swimming in our rivers; what about drinking from them?! Li An Phoa and her partner Maarten are on a mission. Antony Melville writes:

On Sunday 17 September Li An Phoa and her partner Maarten gathered at the Thames Head to begin a month-long walk along the entire length of the river. Their mission is to ‘make our rivers drinkable again’. They will reach Wolvercote on Friday 22nd for a picnic in the orchard at 1.30 followed by a session of water-quality testing, then make their way to Osney Bridge. They will then re-start from Osney Bridge on Sunday 24th at 9am to walk to Abingdon. All are welcome to join the walk. Dates and details here:

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Malcolm Graham, Oxford’s expert on the history of river swimming (as on so much else) has a personal interest in the topic.

I discovered Tumbling Bay (or ‘Tum’ as it’s affectionately known) when our children were young, back in the early 1980s, and I continued swimming there after it officially closed until a few years ago when the silting up of the pools put me off. I was therefore a ‘wild swimmer’ when it was both unfashionable and viewed with a degree of hostility by the authorities! It is great to see the new enthusiasm for outdoor bathing, and interesting to witness the City’s volte-face as it now stands up for river swimmers against Thames Water, having for many years frightened them off by stressing the (absolutely minimal) risk of catching Weil’s disease. – MG

Debbie Hall, who swims at Tum whenever possible, writes:

Tumbling Bay was the first official bathing place to allow women, in the 1890s. It rapidly proved popular with the women of Oxford, and thousands took advantage of the opportunity to swim there in the first season. Women were always required to wear swimming costumes; ‘bathing drawers’ were available for hire.

Unfortunately, Tumbling Bay is now under threat. Having been a bathing place since 1853, though unofficially since the 1990s, it has now been fenced off, as one of the concrete sides is unstable. The Council’s current plan is to replace the damaged side with gabion baskets (wire cages filled with stones) which are potentially hazardous to swimmers and liable to deterioration, unlike the tried and trusted sheet metal edging.

A group of local residents has set up a group to preserve Tum and campaign for a better, longer-lasting solution. More information can be found on the Facebook page of the Tumbling Bay Preservation Society:

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