From riverside bathing places to swimming pools

Outdoor pools, lakes and rivers are where everyone can go cool off from summer heat. Oundle may be landlocked, but it is lucky to be encircled by the River Nene.

Prior to World War I, none of the surrounding villages had piped drinking water or water-borne sewage which meant the river was safe for swimming and an attractive rendezvous for Oundle residents. Two bridges below Bassett Ford Road built in 1887 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee made access to the public bathing place from town much shorter than the route over the South Bridge.

This area had various amenities such as changing sheds and shelters, and there were different time slots for people to swim.

The Bathing Place circa 1910
The Bathing Place circa 1925

Just upstream from a staunch, where the Lower Barnwell lock now is, there was a shallow area where bathers could enter the water by way of wooden steps built into the north bank. This area with its firm and gravelled river floor was mainly for those who were young or beginners.

Those who were able to swim from the shallows to a second set of steps, with the approval from the bathing place attendant, could move up a level from the shallow area to a further stretch of river upstream to “The Blues”. The best swimmers who were able to swim from the second to the third set of steps, around a hundred yards, were able to swim downstream “from the shallows and beyond the staunch” to the Pit which was excavated so that people could dive in from a board on the south bank.

In 1934, Oundle School built its own open-air “swimming bath” on Milton Road, which relieved pressure on the use of the bathing place at the river.

Around that time, a concrete-lined pool was also excavated at the bathing place by the River Authority. Reportedly, this pool was not popular among the townspeople who much preferred the old bathing place. Nevertheless, David Wills (87) who was born in Oundle, said: “Everyone went there to swim. And there was a chap there to make sure everything was safe, and he would teach us to swim……It was working for a couple of years and then polio came, and they closed it down.” According to council medical reports there were two outbreaks of polio in the area in the 1950s before the vaccine was introduced in 1957.

The public pool relied on the river for its water source, but because of the varying levels from the river there was not enough of an adequate flow. The pool was deemed a health and safety hazard and eventually abandoned. Overgrown with brambles, the old pool can still be found along the footpath towards the Lower Barnwell lock.

For a number of years Oundle had no public swimming pool. In the 1960s Rex Lacey led the Youth Community Support Agency and fundraised to build a town swimming pool behind St Peter’s Road, now the site of the Tennis Club.
However, because of the amount of effort and cost it took to run and maintain a pool, the venture came to an end rather quickly.

In 1970, Oundle School covered its pool to make swimming a full-time amenity which was available to the local and village schools during term time, along with a holiday swimming club. Oundle School’s new Sports Centre opened in 2021 with a new fifty-metre swimming pool that is open to the public for lessons, social events and a variety of membership opportunities.

There are even a few private residences in town that have their own in-ground pools. But the appeal of freshwater swimming is timeless. “Wild swimming” is an organised year-round pursuit for many, and for summer days, there are popular swimming places for dipping in the River Nene at Cotterstock, Elton and the pool-shaped crook in the river called The Bowl at the site of the original bathing place.

Gabriel Sun
June 2022