Friday, 23 August 2019

Open water swimmers pay tribute to early forerunners

Open water swimmers pay tribute to early forerunners

A LONG-STANDING Henley tradition has been celebrated by the town’s open water swimming club.

Fourteen members recreated a Thirties photograph which was taken at the old Henley Municipal Swimming Baths off Wargrave Road, which closed in the Eighties.

They posed on land on the opposite bank of the River Thames near Marsh Lock, which is one of four locations they swim from during the year.

The image was created to publicise the 15th annual Selkie Henley Classic, a 2.1km upstream swim along the royal regatta course which will take place at sunrise next Sunday.

A similar event existed in the late 19th century and was revived in 2005 by Tom Kean and Jeremy Laming, of Henley Swim.

The original photograph shows a group of young men and women lounging on a patch of grass in front of the venue, which was known as Solomon’s Hatch.

The land overlooking East Eyot is now home to Henley Rowing Club.

Solomon’s identity is unclear but the outdoor pool was built in a backwater of the River Thames in 1871. Ten years later, author George Leslie described it as a “capital institution for Henley... the water is clear and the bottom sandy. Between the hours of 11 and 1 it is reserved for ladies only... the bathing-place is separated from the main stream and during the ladies’ hours quite safe from intrusion.”

The pool was open from 6am to 8pm daily and had a diving board, deckchairs and steps to the water.

A swimming club formed in 1894 and held regular competitions. Its president Richard Ovey, whose great-grandson, also called Richard, lives in Rotherfield Greys, organised a monthly 100 yard sprint challenge with a prize of a cup in his name.

Throughout the early 20th century, the pool was used by local schools for pupils’ swimming

It fell into disuse as the popularity of cold water swimming waned and an indoor pool opened at Henley leisure centre in the Seventies.

The pool’s wrought iron entrance arch is now displayed at the River & Rowing Museum in Mill Meadows along with signs, old postcards and cups from its heyday.

Mr Laming and Mr Kean’s first three Henley Classics were unofficial events involving mostly friends but the swim was formalised in 2008.

The pair, who are former rowers, now also run the 14km Thames Marathon from Henley to Marlow and the Club to Pub swim from Henley Rowing Club to the Angel on the Bridge in Thames Side.

Swimming club captain Mark Plested, who took part in the photoshoot, said: “Henley has strong historic links with outdoor swimming so they thought it would be nice to do a comparison between then and now.

“It was fun taking part and it’s good to highlight the fact that open water swimming is becoming increasingly popular.

“We have about 70 members and most of them now swim all year round whereas only a few dedicated individuals used to swim through the winter.

“Most of our members will be taking part in the Classic, if not as swimmers then as volunteer helpers. It’s a brilliant event because it’s a chance to swim down such a famous course and there’s a wonderful feeling about setting off so early. You don’t get that opportunity in many other sports.”

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