Being a non-swimmer

The warm sunshine has brought out a plethora of paddling pools. The sound of laughter and splashes can be heard from many quarters. I think I could manage a paddling pool, but nothing any deeper.

At the age of thirty-eight, I learned to swim a few strokes. In hotel pools and in holiday rental cottage pools, I began to manage a few widths, though would never swim in a part of a pool where I could not touch the ground with my feet.

Were I to be asked now, I would say that I was a non-swimmer. If I fell into a river, or from a boat at sea, I should almost certainly drown.

Being a non-swimmer started at an early age.

There was the swimming pool at High Ham Primary School which never failed to induce feelings of fear.  The pool was filled with a hosepipe and depended upon liberal doses of chlorine for its water purification. For a frail, asthmatic child, who struggled to breathe and whose eyes were stung, it was an experience to be avoided as much as possible. However, as far as our teacher was concerned, going into the swimming pool was not an option; everyone was expected to attempt to learn so as to gain a certificate for being able to swim 25 yards.

At Elmhurst Grammar School in Street, the summertime humiliation of going to a swimming pool continued. We were made to go to Greenbank pool, a place of Art Deco architecture that was undoubtedly a great innovation when it was opened. Open air, it offered no protection from the indifferent weather of an English summer. Being in a much larger group than in primary school years allowed those of us who had not learned to swim to hide and to shiver in the shallow end. Strangely, the PE master responsible for the ill assorted group of boys was reputed to be a non-swimmer himself. Whether or not his swimming was strong, when a boy was in trouble on the day of the school swimming gala, the master jumped fully clothed into the water and climbed out carrying the boy with him.

When my asthma became severe, the county council sent me to a school on Dartmoor. Going swimming was not compulsory, but it was encouraged. Swimming was good for developing lung capacity. Succumbing to a housemaster’s suggestion, for one term, I did go with the school bus filled with boys that went to an indoor pool in Exeter each Tuesday afternoon. All I can remember from those hours is the noise generated by dozens of boisterous teenagers and the gasping for breath that followed the inadvertent swallowing of water.

Perhaps it is a reaction to memories of the chlorine, perhaps to the sense of vulnerability, perhaps to the sense of humiliation, but it is a non-swimmer that I shall remain.





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