Sink or swim

My mother never learned to swim. When she visited us in Spain, we took her for a walk around the beach, she was in her late 70s, a leisurely walk of around an hour, but she was quite capable of it.

We got to one of the local streams, and she refused to cross it. It was slightly more full than on the pic I have linked to, but still, it was doable and we would both have taken her across. It wasn’t exactly waist high. So we had to turn around and go back the same way. She was too frightened.

But 30 or 40 years before, she had made sure I could swim. Because she couldn’t.

I’d gone to one of the local swimming baths. They were baths in those days rather than pools. They also had turkish baths, invariably for men, in the days before saunas became popular.

My cousin was an extremely good swimmer and had trained with Eileen Fenton. Who, you ask?

22 August 1950
• Hassan Abdel Rehim (Egypt) won the first Daily Mail cross channel race(men) – France to England August 22, 1950. The women’s race was won by Eileen Fenton (Dewsbury, England).


[Click on the image for the link, it is worth it for the incredible crowds, the very old-fashioned British voice, and the rather nice image of Dewsbury Town Hall]

Meanwhile, my rather sporty cousin took me to the baths and told me to make friends with the water. I was confused by that. I thought I was going to learn to swim. Not throw water in each other’s faces. Might have been a good tactic for some. Didn’t work for me.

Next up. Mr Grimes. He looked exceedingly old to me when I was seven or eight, but even back then I’m sure he had retired from his official teaching position and was just doing private coaching. I had one to one lessons. Five shillings an hour or something like that on a Tuesday afternoon. Maybe it was 2/6 but my mother paid extra. My mother would pick me up from school at 3.30pm and drive to the baths about eight miles away (I went to a school in a different town).

Mr Grimes had a very large stomach and waddled down the side of the baths. He looked like a beached whale. He dived into the water and was the epitomy of elegance.

The swimming baths were those olde worlde ones with cubicles on the side with swingy doors. I went in, took off my clothes and left them on the bench (no-one stole anything back then), put on my swimsuit and entered the shallow end. These were of course the First Class swimming baths. The Second Class ones (where I later went with some local pals) had communal changing rooms! The horror.

Mr Grimes used the life-saving technique of teaching me to swim by holding me under the chin. I didn’t like to take my foot off the bottom of the pool but gradually we entered deeper waters. I didn’t have any choice. I don’t know when I was swimming on my own because he always left his hand under my chin. It just wasn’t touching. My first length was a moment of glory.

So I could swim. Or so I thought.

At senior school (ie 11+), Mondays were swimming days, or maybe it was a different day, but anyway, swimming was part of the curriculum.

We were divided neatly into those who could swim, those who couldn’t, and those who were shit hot.

I put my hand up for the could swim group.

This was the girl who had swum a length, thinking Mr Grimes had supported her all the way and was now asked to swim six breadths/widths with a load of noisy splashy overconfident girls all in two seconds flat, or so it felt.

I was consigned to the non-swimmers group.

I spent the whole term/year/whatever it was holding the wall and learning how to move my legs to swim breast stroke, or standing against the wall doing arm stroke, or going across the pool with a float. I am still griped about it.

Meanwhile the real swimmers raced up and down the pool or jumped/dived off the springboard and top board. I gazed at them enviously and slunk into the depths of zilch confidence. Oh to have been able to say, ‘I CAN swim, but I need more practice in the swimming group, not to be dumped with the non-swimmers and waste my time.’ Perhaps I was a good statistic. Maybe I was recorded as a new swimmer? A success for the sports teachers? Most of the non-swimmers didn’t learn to swim.

A few years later I went on holiday with a schoolfriend and her family to somewhere near Nice, the name of which escapes me these days. It was two weeks in a rented caravan. Me, Nicky, Nicky’s younger sister Susie and Susie’s friend Claire. Claire swam like a fish. I liked Claire. I spent more time with Claire than sulky Nicky. Nicky was interested in boys. Claire and I were interested in swimming or going out and walking or something. The boys were OK, but a minor interest.

One day, we were in the pool with a group of young people we had met and I realised my swimming was crap as I flustered around out of my depth panicking. I decided to do something about it.

When I returned home I started visiting the local swimming pool. No longer the same two tier baths from my olden days but a brand shiny new thing. Missed the chance to be included in competitions apparently because they measured it in yards not meters. So it was 33 yards. Not 33 metres. Older pools were 25 yards and a mile was 72 lengths.

I started swimming the distance. I was often first in the water when the pool opened. The staff knew me. I got the ASA badges (Amateur Swimming Association). Technically you were meant to say, ‘I’m going to go for this many lengths today’, and the attendant would count your lengths.

‘How many lengths did you do today?’

‘Fifty, 70, a hundred, not sure,’ I’d reply.

‘Don’t forget to apply for your badge then,’ they said.

A bit like Freshly Pressed, I never did wear them though. But I was hellish pleased when I completed my one mile.

Meanwhile, if I went in the evening, yes, the speed swimmers came back to haunt me. The Eileen Fenton class no less. (She took a local class of serious swimmers). Some of my school friends were in it. I said hello and quickly scarpered leaving them to thrash up and down the pool in a way I’ve never been able to achieve.

But armed with a bit more confidence after my distance badges, I took some different water classes at university. Diving – where – sadly, we had someone who appeared to be the French champion, I soon lost interest in that one. But life-saving was good. Except the tutor seemed more interested in my body than teaching so that one went by the board too.

I did pick it up later and got my bronze medallion. I did personal survival too. A bit like the length swimming, the class was meant to be going for bronze but we all passed for silver anyway. Never went for gold.

What happened after all that though?

When I travelled to Sydney I met a county swimmer and we regularly went to Bondi Junction RSL club where they had a brill pool and we could get in free with our Brit passport. Nice. There was no competition. Gillian just swam a shit load faster than me, but hey, we both liked swimming.

Back in the UK, I seemed to find work with pools nearby. Good one. And there was always a colleague to go with me at lunchtime. Some were slower or poorer than me, others were better. At my last job I used to swim with a woman who was brought up in Australia and seriously left me behind. Our pool was just over the road at a local school where I negotiated a deal for us to use it at lunch breaks. An hour’s lunch break? You can crack off a fair amount of lengths in that time. Forget the stress of the office and just count the lengths. Seriously good.

I’ve never done swimming for speed. I do the distance. A bit like walking. You just keep going. And although I learned to swim breast stroke and back stroke, I later taught myself back crawl and front crawl.

I liked back crawl. I liked to consider myself elegant as I arched my arms through the water and powered away with my legs. And being vain, I liked to stand at the side of the pool for a while before I dived in. Pretty much like most men do. Difficult now with crappier eyesight than ever. Can’t even see where the water starts.

Front crawl was something else though. Do you keep your head underwater for six or eight strokes and quickly come up for air, or do you splash from side to side? I went for the underwater number as I thought it was more aerodynamic. Butterfly? I’ve done that too, but you really need to be Arnie.

I’ve never swum in Gib although roughseas has dabbled in the Med. It didn’t happen last year. Maybe this year? At least the sea is free.

But thanks Mum, you did well taking me to Tuesday afternoon swimming lessons.

About roughseasinthemed

I write about my life as an English person living in Spain and Gibraltar, on Roughseas, subjects range from politics and current developments in Gib to book reviews, cooking and getting on with life. My views and thoughts on a variety of topics - depending on my mood of the day - can be found over on Clouds. A few pix are over on Everypic - although it is not a photoblog. And of course my dog had his own blog, but most of you knew that anyway. Pippadogblog etc
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30 Responses to Sink or swim

  1. Andrew says:

    We went to the public baths every Thursday. You were expected to do 4 badges – red, green, yellow & white. Then basic life-saving. It was mandatory. Nobody was allowed to give up. You either learned or drowned as far as I recall. I have to confess I don’t actually remember anybody drowning as that would probably have been a black mark against the teacher. So if someone looked as if they were struggling they used to get a polystyrene float to keep their head above water. There were also diving boards but I don’t think we were allowed to use them. Occasionally we played water polo but ponies were in short supply so that was a rare treat. Retired pit ponies I think they were. I wonder how many schools make learning to swim compulsory nowadays. I rarely swim but I do take comfort that if I am ever flung into the deep end by a bunch of irate bloggers I shall be able to swim to safety.


    • That was from school yes? My ASA distance ones are all red blue and silver or something like that. Girls at school did get certificates or badges, but clearly not me dumped in the deep end with the useless brigade 😦

      Two or three diving boards and one springboard at most of the baths I used to visit when I was young. I loved them. Before I got vertigo and didn’t realise I couldn’t see where the water was. Jumping off the top board? Brilliant.

      Now you mention polo I think we did play a few ball games. But being an all girls school balls were in short supply, rather like the ponies for polo.

      My swimming is sadly erratic owing to my eye on the purse so don’t want to pay for a pool especially when I live by the sea. But when I do swim, I still love it to bits. One of life’s sublime experiences. And don’t worry about irate bloggers, I can always grasp you close and drag you in.


  2. Thanks for the memory nudge. I passed my elementary swimming certificate for swimming one whole length of the baths in the same year as I failed my 11 plus and I have still got the certificate which is quite something let me tell you – it was signed by the examiner, Mrs Dick, who was an ex-England swimming coach and a truly fearsome creature, Councillor Pattinson, the Chairman of the Baths Committee and Jim Duffy, the Town Clerk no less! Who needed the eleven-plus? Not Me!


    • Memory nudge. I’ve read your post about that at least twice! Ah but did Mrs Dick ever swim the Channel? She certainly wasn’t the first woman to win the first cross-Channel race unlike 22-year-old (I think) Ms Fenton. Not that it’s in me to do one-up-personship but not only did I swim my first length when I was younger than you, I also naturally did it before you, because as I like to point out, I am also younger. I must have five or six years on you for the first length. Not that it is of any value, just fun to say 🙂

      Never took the eleven plus. Didn’t need to. Took the senior school entrance exam and one for a private place awarded by the governors of the junior school. I didn’t need the free place, my parents would have paid, I sure as hell needed to pass the entrance exam. There were three schools you could list on the form at the time. Most parents went for the standard three in our area, so the girls all had to sit three exams. Mine decided I could sink or swim, they only put one school down and left the other two options blank. I had to pass that exam. I’ve got very mixed views about competitive exams.


  3. Start from the bottom of your post. Count up 14 lines. Yes.


  4. Vicky says:

    Your description of the baths reminds me of my school days and the visits to Armley baths in Leeds.
    I learnt to swim in the sea at Hornsea, I was never a strong swimmer, though I did dive for the school once in a competition.
    Hmm, I really ought to brush up on swimming again, it’s years since I’ve been, probably couldn’t even manage a length nowadays 😦


    • Never went to Armley although I can imagine them being pretty much the standard Victorian model. I did visit the international pool in Leeds, with HUUUUUGELY long lengths. It was where I finally got my bronze medallion and dragging someone else up and down those lengths when you were ‘rescuing’ them was no fun at all.

      I’m sure you could manage a length, I’ve always been surprised if I’ve not been for a while and it still seems effortless. I do think swimming in the sea is well different. It’s very deep where we are in Spain, a couple of yards and you are out of your depth. Even though the beach is invariably full of Spaniards on holiday, the only swimmers tend to be northern Europeans, with the Spaniards just cooling off at the water’s edge. Obviously not had the benefit of the Victorian swimming baths in their childhood.


      • Vicky says:

        Victorian baths! You’ve got Armley spot on there 🙂
        The highlight of the trips were the little salty cracker style biscuits they sold, a bit like Ritz, but better, we’d all sit on the bus back to school munching away and drinking Oxo from flasks 🙂


        • I may have seen them, I did work in Armley for a while! Not TUCs? I quite liked those. I think you must have rather a lot of salt in your body then, OXO, Ritz? Need to get rid of all that 😀


          • Vicky says:

            No, they weren’t TUC’s either. They were round. My mum bought all sorts of different ones trying to find what they were. The baths sold them loose, so I assume they were a bulk purchase, unless they had a little old lady baking them behind the scenes 😆
            LOL, yes, salt overload it what!!


          • I think the only ones on sale at Dewsbury were Wagon Wheels!


  5. Vicky says:

    Huh! How come that’s posted twice?


  6. bluonthemove says:

    I’m just back from swimming. I find I prefer low impact exercise these days. Went to the local Virgin Active club. Are there health club places like that in Gib other than the ones run by apartment blocks which I believe non-residents can join ?


    • I’m bone idle. I’ve always liked swimming, I like walking, and I’ve taken to cycling rather more seriously than before over the last however many Spanish years. The good thing about both cycling and swimming is that both are energy efficient, the water helps with swimming and the cycle helps with propulsion. Or something like that.

      Atlantic Suites and Ocean Village as far as I know of.

      Got a mate who works as a personal trainer there so I can ask her for more inf next time we see her.


      Pix of OV pool complex (taken in winter) here:

      There is a local pool too, ie council/govt, which I have never been to. I’ve not swum in the sea of Gib either but my neighbour tells me eastern beach is good.

      Not sure about non-residents being able to join private blocks for pool use, but I’ll ask around. Ordnance Wharf has a pretty good one, there is one at the Rock Hotel, All the Queensway Quay lot have them, depends where you live reallly. Buena Vista obviously has a communal pool as well as the private ones for the bigger houses.


  7. EllaDee says:

    I’m with the Andrews who commented first… great memory nudge, and “You either learned or drowned as far as I recall” was the swimming form at my school as well. I can swim but am not a strong swimmer (too much passive smoking in the backset of the car while Dad chain smoked Phillip Morris?) and remember going for my Bronze Medal in Year 11 and at the end of the final lap gazing up from the bottom of the pool while the teacher Mrs Boggs encouraged “you can do it”. I made a last effort and thankfully made the surface… that was the end of any formal swimming for me, now I just love playing in the waves or swimming in the river as the chlorine in swimming pools and blonde hair is a bad mix.


    • I think my father was chucked in the pool by his brother. Nasty way to teach people to swim so luckily it didn’t happen to me.

      But as for passive back seat lung cancer? First I got my dad to STOP throwing the fag packets out of the window, and eventually I got them both to stop smoking in the car because it made me feel so sick. Even with both back windows full down.

      I found the chlorine good for mine in terms of colour, it was bleached anyway, and the chlorine just made it even more blond 🙂 Now, I’m just happy to be brown and not very grey/white. The sea is ok, the salt isn’t a problem as I just go home and shower it all off.

      Did you really have a teacher called Mrs Boggs? I think she should have kept her maiden name.


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