From the summer of 1938 I went with two or three other girls to Penrith Swimming Club on the River Eamont. It was only 1⁄2 mile away and included an exhilarating ride on our cycles. Although mine was a fairy cycle and theirs were hardly bigger, there was no need to pedal a er passing Cross Keys Inn. We ew!
We had to pay admission, but only a few pence. If it had been wet we crossed the field on foot and could expect the river to be higher than normal. After a hot dry spell it was probably too low to dive in at the shallow end, but that did not trouble us. We were not competitive, just there for fun, and to learn to swim. My first few yards of ‘dog paddling’ were a milestone in my young life. It was something I had never managed in the Solway near Silloth. On cold days there were few people there, but when the water got to 70F it was crowded.
We used to share a wooden cubicle for changing at the ladies’ end. It could smell hot and damp and I seem to remember that one-piece woollen costumes were the order of the day, soon to feel heavy and soggy. Shirred elasticated ones followed.
The outdoor Club was then considered the largest in the country. At least it smelled grassy and not of chlorine. One day, at the shallow end, a noisy girl was pushed in by a small boy, from where she stood on the edge, still dry! She went down like a stone, so instinctively I jumped in and grabbed her mop of curls, pulling her up. The boy was terrified by her screams, and was reprimanded by nearby adults. I then felt sorry for him and gave him half my bag of crisps (secretly I rather admired his act as she was quieter afterwards). But no one thanked me.
Another day, as I was swimming breaststroke, I thought I was doing really well, but that was because the river was in spate. I was soon out of my depth and scared of the weir. Luckily an older sister of a friend spotted me, caught my straps and helped me to the side. There were fantastic swimmers in the Club, who showed their prowess on gala days. The name Birtle was on everyone’s lips.
Going home we were always a bit tired going up Frenchfield, pushing our bikes, but then the bluebells in the wood enticed us into the cool fragrance. No one begrudged me picking a bunch to take home.
Editor’s note: Penrith Swimming Club dates from 1881 and in 1933 had a record membership of 1,140. An outdoor pool was added next to the river after the last war. It ceased to be used when the indoor pool was opened in Penrith, at its present location, now part of the Leisure Centre.