Friday, 23 August 2019

Memories of learning to swim in the Thames

Memories of learning to swim in the Thames

A RECENT story in these pages about the old Henley Municipal Swimming Baths brought back memories for Ian Sadler.

The 78-year-old, who lives in Ashford Avenue, Sonning Common, with his wife Barbara, was among hundreds of schoolchildren from the area who learned to swim at the baths off Wargrave Road.

Mr Sadler, whose son-in-law Mark Plested is captain of Henley’s open water swimming club, attended Peppard Primary School before starting lessons when he moved to the old Rotherfield Secondary Modern School in 1951, aged 11.

A local bus company ferried pupils to the baths once a week at the end of the summer term and early in the autumn term and they were taught by sports master Mr Denslow.

Each class of about 12 to 15 pupils was taught separately and beginners would first climb into the water using one of two iron ladders attached to the riverbank.

These didn’t go all the way down to the riverbed and the water was at neck height in even the shallow areas so at first they would cling to a lifebelt attached to a pole held by Mr Denslow.

He would walk up and down the bank shouting instructions until they had mastered a basic breast stroke, at which point they could practise alone in a small inlet fenced off by metal booms. Once they were more confident, they could swim in the main stream of the River Thames.

Older pupils didn’t have to compete against each other and didn’t learn advanced techniques like front crawl or back stroke. Instead, they would swim freely at a comfortable pace.

Mr Sadler says: “We had our lessons in the warmest weeks of the school year but I remember it was still pretty cold when you first got in.

“I enjoyed it but it was sometimes hard to concentrate on the lesson. The teacher would be shouting directions with this big overcoat on and you’d think ‘it’s all right for you’. You’d eventually get used to the cold, though, and it could actually be very pleasant on a hot day, especially once you’d got the hang of it.

“I remember I got banned for a while because one day it was so cold that I got out before the lesson ended. I was still in the changing room when they called everyone off the water and they panicked when I wasn’t there!

“In those days they didn’t teach anything fancy — it was more just about getting to the stage where you could look after yourself. I’m still not much of a swimmer, though I’ve learned bits and pieces.” The baths, now the home of Henley Rowing Club, opened in 1871 and regularly hosted swimming competitions for children and adults in their heyday.

They fell into disuse when an indoor pool opened at Henley leisure centre in the Seventies. The old wrought iron entrance arch is displayed at the River & Rowing Museum in Mill Meadows.

Mr Sadler, whose daughter Sarah is married to Mr Plested, has watched his son-in-law compete in several open water events including the Henley Classic race along the royal regatta course.

Mr Plested and fellow club members recently took part in a re-creation of an old photograph that was taken at the baths in the Thirties.

His son Josh, 11, is developing an interest in the past-time and the pair will both take part in this year’s Henley Swim Festival.

Mr Sadler said: “It’s great that outdoor swimming is becoming popular again. I’d probably have enjoyed those events when I was younger but I doubt that’s going to happen now!”

Mr Plested said: “Our membership has grown significantly in the past two or three years so I imagine the baths would be popular if they were still open, though from experience it would probably be a nightmare to manage them safely.”

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