Learning to swim in the River Thames

From Tumblin Bay Weir to Desborough Cut, readers relive their memories of splashing around in the river for fun or with classes of youngsters from schools in the area

THANKS to the many readers who have responded to my articles about learning to swim in the Thames during the 1930s and 40s – the subject is obviously dear to the hearts of many who look back fondly on those days.

I’m particularly grateful to George Webb who wrote to me from his present home in Instow, Devon to tell me about his memories of those times when he was a pupil at St James CofE School, Weybridge from 1940 to 1945. I’ll let George tell his story:

“The boys school of St James lay close to the Recreation Ground gates in Meadow Way Road off Baker Street in Weybridge.

“On a bright sunny day in the summer of 1940, a line of schoolboys wound its way down Springfield Lane all carrying towels, bathing trunks – and gas masks.

“We passed the area where the River Wey joins the Thames and continued along the towpath to the first bridge on the Desborough Cut where the first view of the bathing huts could be seen. Over the bridge, down the steps to the huts – wooden constructions, painted green.

“The girls changed at one end, the boys at the other and in the middle was the office for Mr Carver and Mr Palmer, the attendants who used to give swimming lessons using a long pole with a lifeguard ring on the end of it to help support the swimmers.

“This was paradise for us children, messing about in the river all afternoon. Sometimes two brothers – Bob and Ron Smith – showed up and would entertain us with acrobatics, handstands etc before ending with a graceful swallow dive from the centre of the bridge.”

But George also remembers that the war with Germany was never far away, even from the consciousness of the youngsters.

He continues: “Us boys would sometimes wander off and lay in the long grass watching the dog fights in the sky. The vapour trails were everywhere.

“Just past the bathing huts, a short distance along the river, the Observer Corps had its post. Sometimes it was unmanned which presented us with a great opportunity to visit and to see all their instruments and look through their binoculars.”

You can almost picture the Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts wheeling and weaving in the sky above the river, can’t you?

George has many more wonderful stories of his years growing up by the Thames and I’ll certainly come back to them for a future column. Thanks again for sharing your memories, George.

DAVID Larmar of Walton also contacted me to say: “Your excellent Article on swimming in the Thames took me back to the 40s and 50s when it was a popular past-time for the local youths to use the river for recreational and friendly competitive swimming…on summer evenings and weekends.

“A group of us, aged 8 to 10, were periodically taken down to the river bank, by the old bathing huts next to the Walton Swimming Club building, by Mr Todd, a teacher at Ashley Road Junior School, for fairly basic swimming lessons.

“This informally and safely introduced us to the joys of swimming using the shallows just off the bank there and which many of us continued for many years.

“The more ambitious of us used to swim across to Tumblin Bay Weir by the Terrace Road Park towpath steps with rods for a fishing session on the shallow weir steps using to good effect the weed growth there for bait.

“Those were happy carefree days, which have stood some of us in good and healthy stead from then till now. Long may it continue.”

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