Hidden depths uncovered by a history of our long love affair with wild water

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Susie Parr will take a dip in rivers, lakes and sea in most kinds of weather and her passion has led her to research the history of swimming. She talks to Sheena Hastings

THOSE alpha Roman males did it in armour; one Elizabethan gent strode in complete with knife to trim his toenails and a hawk balanced on his wrist; Victorian women wore more clothes for a dip in the sea than they would if sitting down for afternoon tea; Romantic poets and painters went “wild” swimming in lakes, ponds and rivers, convinced that communing with nature in the raw would inspire their work; and generations of doctors came to believe that regular plunges into the sea were of immense benefit to human health.

For Susie Parr, swimming is in the blood. She was brought up messing about in the Esk in the Lake District, and her mother had been a member of Ye Amphibious Ancients Bathing Association, set up in 1889 for workers to enjoy swimming in the River Tay at Broughty Ferry, Dundee. As a student in Manchester, Susie lost the habit of swimming in the wild, but during a spell spent working in Southern Ireland she rediscovered her love of bathing in natural places and has been indulging that desire ever since.

Decades on, she speaks of the irresistible urge to swim in rivers, lakes and sea as an addiction, but not one she’d ever try to cure. Most of us are fair weather swimmers – happy to play, float and even thrash out a few strokes on a hot summer’s day in a place where there’s safety in numbers.

We’re spoiled by holidays to hot places, where the golden sand shelves gently into tepid water. Parr, on the other hand, likes nothing better than a deserted sea cove, a private little pool in a river, or a lake at twilight when a dip in the still, chilly water gives the whole body a shock of excited anticipation.

She’s not deterrred by shingle, pebbles, weeds, anemones, slimy and shifting stones underfoot or watery darkness that could harbour... well anything, depending on the ferocity of your imagination.

To any confirmed water nut, there is something both irresistibly alluring and yet incredibly frustrating about Parr’s glorious slab of a book The Story of Swimming. She is a speech therapist by training who has written books on her specialism, but by nature she is a swimmer.

Not the Olympic-style, 200 laps of the pool before dawn sort, but the sensuous, dipping, lolling, gently stroking the water and enjoying the view-type, who’d rather have her nails ripped out slowly than swim indoors in chlorine solution.

She has spent the last few years, when not working or wet, researching the history of swimming. And what a glorious story it is. The book is uplifting, entertaining, full of tales of humankind’s relationship with the water. Yet it’s also frustrating because, if you have even a slight touch of amphibian about you, you wish you could immediately scatter your clothes as you run towards the nearest lake or beach.

“I’ve become much braver over the years,” says Susie, who lives in Bristol, and swims regularly at a local lake as well as sea swimming in Tenby, South Wales. “So many people I know would rather die than go into the cold sea, and they imagine all sort of creatures. I’ve always felt a real need to swim out there in the open, and wanted to understand why I’m so compelled to immerse myself in the landscape. It’s part of who I am.”

She began working on the book without a commission or knowing if it would ever find its way to publication. After five solid years of research and finding illustrations, a publisher got on board and her husband, the photographer Martin Parr, provided photographs.

She found descriptions of swimming in Roman and Anglo-Saxon poetry, and that trick of swimming in armour proved a winner, by the way, as those invaded never expected that a lack of bridges would fail to keep the Romans at bay. The cultural influence of sea, rivers and lakes was spread by their inclusion in the work of eminent artists, from Byron and Shelley to Turner and Constable. Shelley loved the sea, but never learned to swim properly and drowned in the Bay of Spezia. Byron jumped into Venetian canals and swam to escape romantic entanglements. He and his compadres conspired to make sea swimming, in particular, appear dangerous, enigmatic and bohemian.

In a wonderful chapter on the democratisation of swimming, Parr describes how, in the 19th century, coastal resorts around Britain experienced a massive escalation in the numbers of visitors heading to the sea in pursuit of health and enjoyment. The spread of rail travel meant the working classes could now share what had long been a middle-class preserve. In Victorian times bathing was strictly regulated, with different times for men and women. In Scarborough, men were told they “must wear drawers” except before 7am and after 9pm.

“Humble fishing villages turned soon became elegant, fashionable destinations with beautiful houses overlooking the beach rented by families for the summer. Scarborough’s fortunes were completely altered by the public pursuit of pleasure in the sea,” says Parr.

Public interest in swimming grew further when Captain Matthew Webb’s second attempt to swim across the Channel was successful on August 25, 1875. Sadly, he died eight years later, while trying to swim across the rapids below Niagara Falls.

The Victorians were responsible for a new, regimented attitude to swimming, including rigorous rules on proper cleanliness and perfection of technique. The instruction of swimming and the need for competitiveness amongst young swimmers spread from public to state schools, moving the bucolic, unrestrained joy of bathing in natural places into an unnatural indoor environment with enjoyment often supplanted by the simple desire to beat the opposition.

In spite of a spate of books on “wild swimming” and the 10,000 membership of the Outdoor Swimming Society, Parr doesn’t believe hedonistic delight in rivers, lakes and sea is really growing.

“I’m not noticing more swimmers in the places I like to go. I’d like to see more people doing it. It’s not about speed or technique, but enjoyment and a sense of wellbeing.”

The Story of Swimming by Susie Parr is published by Dewi Lewis Media, £25. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk