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John Taylor looks at the area's love affair with water and the swimming opportunities for local people through the years

Bathing Place: Bletchley and Fenny Stratford in the swim of it
Bathing Place. Watling Street, at the bend of the river.

In days gone by, for those seeking the cure of medicinal bathing, there were at various times several locations where healing waters could be locally sought, including Gayhurst, Flitwick and Winslow.

However, for recreational purposes for centuries the River Ousel remained in favour, until rivalled in the early 19th century by the challenge of the Grand Junction Canal, (known from 1929 as the Grand Union Canal).

Before the advent of the railways, the canals introduced an unparalleled opportunity for commercial success, and, apart from the goods that could now be economically transported from the mining and industrial areas, a lucrative custom also awaited those who were prepared to cater for the needs of initially the navvies, and then the bargees.

Originally a private thatched house at Fenny Stratford, the first mention of the canalside Red Lion is made in 1835. Not surprisingly, the location could often prove hazardous to customers who over-indulged - although it was not only drunken adults who occasionally ended up in the canal but also children, for whom the lock provided an added fascination. In fact, one landlord of the Red Lion would even be recommended for a medal by the Royal Humane ' Society, for having twice jumped into the lock to rescue small boys. Eventually, so many complaints were being made about children bathing in the canal that, in the words of public opinion, "We sadly want a bathing place where the youngsters may bathe, without being a nuisance."

And so in 1896 a Mr Garner and a Mr Whitney were tasked, on behalf of the council, to find a suitable situation. Adjoining the river, a location 'on the London Road' was deemed ideal, and in consequence correspondence was received from the agent to the Duncombe estate asking if, for the sum of £10 per annum, the council might wish to rent the whole of the field.

With the proposal accepted, it was then decided to spend around £50 on providing sheds for bathers, while for the existing hut £1 would be paid to Alfred Benford, who had been the late occupier of the site. In finalising the arrangements, mention was then made that the gate to the field would need painting, but in the event a new one was provided.

For supplying the sheds, of the two tenders received, that of £42 10s from Rowland Bros, was accepted. As for the grass-keeping - "either mowed or grazed" - that from Mr H. Wright of £6 10s proved successful.

In order to hide the 'Bathing Place' from view, permission was sought from the agent of the Duncombe trustees to erect two or three posts in the field occupied by Messrs Hammond and Sons, to support a latticework - apparently a necessity, in the light of Mr G. Cave's letter of July 1, 1897, in which he complained to the council about the nuisance caused by indecent bathing in the canal.

Therefore, to be ordered from Messrs A Stilton, a board warning bathers against "indecent exposure of the person", would be placed at the entrance to the site - along with the bathing regulations including that "Every person using the Bath must be provided with bathing drawers".

The bathing committee would recommend that certain hours should be set apart for the exclusive use of those subscribing Is 6d a year, but nevertheless the facility began to deteriorate, until the council schools were established.

Thus, in a policy of continuing improvements, after a meeting on site in 1919, Lady Leon and the educational representatives decided that if the floor of the shed was concreted, and a partition put in place, the standard for both sexes would prove temporarily adequate for the school swimming classes. The cost of £30 was to be divided between the education authority and the urban vouncil, and in May 1919 it was agreed that the Bathing Place should be reserved for schoolgirls on Mondays and Fridays from 2 to 4pm.

In the long term, the intention was to raise sufficient funds to provide a proper swimming pool, but in 1921 the clerk of the council reported that the Bathing Place was to be auctioned on July 20, and it was decided to offer £150 by private treaty. If this was not accepted, then the chairman of the council should be authorised to attend the sale and purchase the Bathing Place on behalf of the urban council.

So it was with the council that a deputation of the unemployed met in October 1921 regarding the cleaning out of the facility, as a way of providing work. Completing the change of ownership the following month, the Bathing Place was then conveyed from Sir E. Duncombe to the council, and in July 1925 the surveyor arranged to have certain improvements carried out, including the building of a retaining wall.


Last month, we mentioned the 'Bathing Place', situated on the bend of the river alongside Watling Street. And the nostalgic photograph on the right has been kindly supplied by Mrs E. Corden, who learned to swim there.

She remembers that one of the reasons for the decline in the facility's popularity was the presence of several dead sheep on the adjoining river banks - left behind by the receding waters of an extensive flood.

Apart from the Bathing Place, local swimmers also had the 'pond' at Water Eaton Mill, (although for the unwary this posed a peril, by reason of a deep section towards the middle). Otherwise they could brave the hazards of the Denbigh pits.

Even before the gravel excavations, the site had been greatly favoured for sporting activities, due to being one of the flattest meadows in the county. As implied by the name, 'Flannels Meadow' had on one occasion even hosted a match between the All England cricket team and "the top hatted Gentlemen of Bucks".

With swimming continuing to be a popular local recreation, in 1928 the Fenny Stratford members of the council recommended that, using water from the river, a bathing pool, or swimming bath, should be dug alongside the Bathing Place, but in 1935 plans for a proper swimming pool in the town were proposed.

Despite the resignation that year of the council's surveyor John Chadwick, the council had decided to retain his eminent services as consulting engineer for certain special schemes. Although he received instructions to proceed with the planning of the proposed swimming pool, after several delays the council abandoned the project.

Then, with the prospect of a government grant, they decided to proceed, but appointed the new surveyor as the architect. Not surprisingly, Major Chadwick claimed damages in respect of the old contract and, after considerable negotiations, the matter was settled out of court, with the council agreeing to pay him a sum of £850.

The council now prepared plans to provide a covered swimming pool, designed to have one side open with folding doors, to be financed by a £6,000 grant from the National Advisory Council and Grants Committee for Physical Training and Recreation. Agreement was reached with the education authority for a sum to be paid in return for using the pool, and tenders were invited, with construction due to begin during the summer.

However, the outbreak of war caused the cancellation of the grant - a tender of £12,000 had been accepted the day before hostilities broke out.

The prospect of London being heavily bombed caused the evacuation of children to rural areas, and for those arrivals in Bletchley the countryside would provide a fascinating contrast to their previous urban confinements. Yet although there was less danger from enemy air raids, for those unfamiliar with the countryside there were new hazards to face, as would be tragically proved, especially those posed by the profusion of streams and ponds.

Attending the Ecclesbourne Road School Senior department, (which was accommodated in Bletchley Park pavilion), for the past 18 months, 12-year-old Peter Kelly, an evacuee from Highbury in north London, had been billeted with Mr and Mrs H. Ince of 6 Watling Street Terrace.

One evening in June 1941 he met up with another 12-year-old, Arthur Cox, of Lennox Road and, having decided to go for a swim in the Mill Pond at Water Eaton, the boys got changed and entered the water.

Suddenly Peter got into difficulties and grabbed his friend's bathing costume, but when this tore he began to slip under the water, and tragically drowned. At the inquest, 18-year-old Herbert Smith of 11 Windsor Street, said that he had been near the pond at about 7.30pm on that evening, and when told that a boy was drowning had dived on two occasions into some seven feet of water. Eventually he recovered the body, but despite desperate attempt at artificial respiration by four soldiers plus the attentions of Dr Dorothy Lufkin, all their efforts proved in vain. A verdict of accidental death was recorded by the Coroner, Mr E.T. Ray

Another evacuee to fall victim to the watery perils was seven-year-old Frank Tootell, who, whilst playing on the bank, fell into the canal near Hammond's Bridge. With his brother Billy, he had been billeted for the past two and a half years at the home of Mrs Adelaide Linden, of 19 Church Street, and on Friday, April 3, 1942 the boys had been playing with a dog and other children near the canal when they met 10-year-old Nancy Quinn, of 54 Aylesbury Street.

They all then walked along the towpath towards the bridge. Having told Frank not to play with a stick by the water, when she heard a splash Nancy initially thought that the dog had fallen in. When she realised that it was Frank who had fallen in, Billy immediately raced along the path to tell a woman, who quickly told a soldier of the predicament.

Meanwhile, Nancy ran to the other bank and, despite the water being rough, used a stick to pull Frank to the side of the canal. She then held his head above water until Private Richard Griffiths arrived, with two colleagues, and tried to give artificial respiration. Unfortunately, the boy was already dead and, following an inquest, the funeral was held on Monday in the Salvation Army Hall.

In a letter of March 27 1944 to the council, Mr G. Goodwin, of Dropshort Farm, offered a rent of £4 10s per annum for the Bathing Place field and this was accepted, provided he kept the weeds down.

Despite the war, during that year plans were shown for a swimming pool to be constructed at Central Gardens - 35ft x 100ft, enhanced by footpaths, cubicles, dressing rooms, showers, and underwater lighting. Perhaps in anticipation of this, in March 1945 the council announced the sheds at the Bathing Place were to be dismantled, and the fencing removed.

In July they invited tenders for the purchase of the several sheds, plus a quantity of galvanised corrugated iron sheets - and thus the water-filled gravel works in Denbigh Road would gain in favour for both fishing and swimming.

However, in early July 1946 the former pit manager, Fred Carvell, who for many years had occupied a house in Staple Hall Road, died aged 40. He had been living with his wife in Wellingborough Road, Olney, and was soon to have moved to Great Linford, to manage another pit belonging to the same firm, Thomas Roberts (Westminster) Ltd.

In 1947 Mr Norman Green purchased The Grange, at Far Bletchley - a property with a swimming pool (which had served as a static water tank during the war) - and offered its use to the local schools. He even hoped to open a lido at the premises before the end of the year!

As for a public swimming pool, a proposal to revive the scheme to celebrate the Festival of Britain met with little enthusiasm, and it would not be until the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II that a plan would materialise, with a Town Committee being formed to raise sufficient money.

Unfortunately, the amount proved disappointing, but nevertheless a plastic-lined open air pool, known as 'Queens Pool', opened in June 1958, with Bletchley Swimming Club securing the use for a formcoming season on Mondays between 6pm and 9pm, for a fee of £25.

In order to allow for shifting and subsidence, the plastic liner had been left deliberately looser and slacker than necessary, and at the end of the season the sheet was sent back to the manufacturers for trirmning. However, when duly returned to Bletchley it was found to have hardened in the cold weather, and the subsequent work had to be postponed until the warmer months. Even so, the liner would prove less than adequate and, as a remedial measure, a surface coating of fibreglass had to be applied.

Eventually, enhancements were made to the pool, including the provision of heated water, which could be enjoyed by the public following a re-opening in July 1969. The pool remained as a popular and much-used local amenity until the 1970s, when, together with Central Gardens, the area succumbed to the 'futuristic' Bletchley Leisure Centre.