Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
On our own bank, from 1890 until some twenty years ago the tow-path was hemmed in by the ugly monotonous fence of Hurst Park racecourse, by the side of which stood the Molesey Bathing Station.
It was during the Victorian era that river bathing became popular, and men were allowed to swim in the Thames before eight in the morning and after eight at night. But there were continual complaints, and some prosecutions, after genteel ladies walking along the towpath espied men bathing at other times. In 1901 the council established a bathing station on Ash Island, and later another alongside the river Mole at West Molesey. The Ash Island station seems to have faded out about the time of the First World War and, when that conflict was concluded, several requests were made to re-establish a station on the Thames. On the suggestion of the Thames Conservancy a site was chosen just a little below Garrick's Island. A piece of ground was rented by the council from the Hurst Park Club at a nominal rent of £1 a year, and on 27 May 1925 the station was opened for public use.
The present author recalls many happy hours spent as a youth around this spot. Few things are pleasanter when one is young and the weather is warm than to plunge into a nice cool stream. The target of all the boys was a tiny islet which formerly stood at the tail of Garrick's Ait. The compulsion to get across that little channel was amazing, for to reach the island one had to go out of one's depth and that was the acid test of one's ability to swim. You had to have the confidence not only to get there, but to get back too. Not that there was much on the islet when you got there — just a little green patch, one solitary tree, and mud, mud which oozed through your toes. Nevertheless the first achievement was great, you were there, and that was the proof you were now a swimmer. For, as Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked: 'Leander swam the Hellespont — And I will swim this here'.
On a warm summer's evening the area around the bathing station was alive with activity. The river's edge bubbled with splashing youngsters in and out of the water, the raft rebounding to the feet of plunging divers, the more experienced swimmers out in the deep, the towpath milling with people who had already had their dip or who had only come to watch, and over all the geniality of the attendant — Mr McLachlan — 'Mac' to everybody. His benign superintendence saw to it that all troubles, cut toes, lost towels, cramp in the legs, swimmers in danger, everything great or small, was smoothly sorted out. But it was on a sunny Sunday when the bank was really at its best. All day long a mass of humanity stretched along the towpath for several hundred yards on either side of the bathing station. Camping, sun-bathing, picnicking, swimming or just lolling around, it was a colourful and noisy scene, the like of which one just does not see along the river now.
Over the years the little island, to which we used to swim, got smaller and smaller, the companionless tree died, and without these roots to hold it together rapidly eroded. It was finally dredged away soon after the end of the last war. The bathing station was destroyed by fire in 1966 and, because of changed attitudes towards river bathing, was never re-established.
ISBN 0 86023 414 2
Thameside Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.
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