Continuing to catch up with delayed posts, my attention was caught by a piece in the Guardian magazine a couple of weekends ago, on river and lake swimming. Two books have recently appeared on the subject, and this was a review by Margaret Drabble of one of them, by Kate Rew, published by the newspaper itself. The Newnham Riverbank Club mentioned is well known to me, where my father swam for many years, and where we scattered his ashes in 1997. Originally the University bathing sheds, it once had several diving boards, though the Cam has become shallower over the years and the higher boards, from which I can remember my father doing elaborate dives, are now closed. The buildings suffered badly from fire in the 1970s and the club was kept going by a group, by no means all of them connected to the university. Duties such as the daily temperature readings, mowing the grass and maintaining the steps were carried out by volunteers. Swimming could sometimes be difficult. Pesticide pollution, both from the fields around the river, and from Fison's chemical factory near Harston, put off the faint hearted, and caused the annual swim through Cambridge, in which my father was once the oldest participant, to be abandoned. In one hot summer, I can recall swimming through bright green duck-weed as thick as the tussocks on Granchester Meadows.
A favourite swim was from the sheds up to Dead Man's Corner, which I think was a quarter of a mile, there and back. Who the dead man was, I never knew.
The tradition of naked swimming established by nineteenth century dons persisted, with a member of the club on look-out duty to give warning of approaching punts, especially if they contained women. Ladies were only admitted comparatively recently.
The banks of the Cam once had many bathing places. There were the council-run sheds on Sheep's Green, mentioned in Joseph Needham's essay Cambridge Summer in History is on our Side; there was a a children's bathing place on Snob's Brook where many were taught to swim in a backwater before graduating to the main river; there was a shed owned by the police and another used by local schools such as the Perse and the Leys.
The Guardian review refers to Rupert Brooke's swimming activities with the Cambridge neo-Pagans, though I should be interested to know what evidence there is that Virginia Woolf and E.M.Forster swam with Brooke. It fails to mention an earlier literary swimmer in Cambridge, Byron who, in training or this later crossing of the Hellespont, was reputed to have swum in the river above Granchester, in Byron's Pool.