Swimming at the White House

MY PARENTS, ESPECIALLY my mother, were keen that I learned to swim. It took me a long time to learn this activity. For many years, I was taken to various indoor pools to take lessons with a variety of swimming teachers, some professional and others not. One of the latter was a young Asian lady, who gave me a few lessons in the pool at the White House. This was not the famous establishment in Washington DC but a 1930’s apartment block, now a hotel, near Great Portland Street Underground station in London.

The White House, London

The teacher, who had no success with getting me to swim, lived in the White House and was recommended to my parents by another resident, a family friend, whom we knew as ‘Sakki’. Like my parents, Sakki was born in South Africa and my father told me that his family and Sakki’s were either remotely related and/or in business together. Both Sakki and my father were on the academic staff of the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). Sakki was the anthropologist Professor Isaac Schapera (1905-2003). He had become an expert on the anthropology of indigenous people of Botswana and South Africa. Amongst his many published works was “The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa”, published back in 1930.

Apart from providing me with one of my many swimming instructors, Sakki took a great interest in my sister and me. He gifted me several books, amongst which was several books about the adventures of Hergé’s cartoon character Tintin. These were in French and were volumes that were at the time neither available for sale in the UK nor translated into English. When I graduated with my PhD in 1976, he presented me with a two-volume book about magic, myths, and science.

In the very early 1960s, Sakki joined us on a family driving holiday in France in our smallish Fiat 1100. My mother, who had been involved in a serious car accident in the 1930s, had installed seatbelts in our car, a rare thing for the time. Sakki had to travel in the rear seat with my sister and me. Sakki had his own seatbelt (lap design), and my sister and I were strapped together in the other belt, separated from each other by a pillow. It soon became obvious to my parents that Sakki was not enjoying being confined in the rear of the car with two young children. My parents solved the problem by stopping at regular intervals at roadside cafés so that Sakki could enjoy a glass of cognac. This seemed to help him tolerate the journey, about which I remember little else.

During my childhood, Sakki was a regular visitor to our family home. He used to amuse us kids with comical verses, only one of which I can remember. It sounded to my ears something like this: “Olke, bolke, reeby, solte. Olke, bolke, knor.” While writing this piece, I looked for this on the Internet, and now know that what he was telling us was the words of an Afrikaans song that goes:

“Olke bolke Riebeeck stolke, olke bolke knor…”

Well, now, many years since I last saw Sakki, I know that what he was telling us was not his invention, as I had always believed as a youngster.

Sakki underwent surgery on his vocal cords. This affected his speech badly and drove him to avoid socialising in his later years. However, he did visit our home on at least one occasion after his voice had been affected. I was a young teenager then and I can still remember that when he spoke, all that one could hear was a hoarse, rasping, whisper. After conversing with me for a few minutes, he said to me:

“You don’t have to whisper just because I am talking so softly.”

And then he added:

“I have noticed that everyone with whom I talk gradually lowers their voice to a whisper whilst they converse with me. It is strange how the loudness of my voice affects that of people who are talking with me.”

That people unconsciously adjust their voices to match that of their interlocutors made a great impression on my young mind, and I have never forgotten it.

I do not believe that I ever met Sakki again between 1976 and 2003, when he died. By then, the White House had almost completely changed from being an apartment block to becoming a hotel. Sakki lived there until he died and was one of the place’s last full-time residents from the time before it became a hotel with a few flats.

And, just in case you are wondering, I did learn to swim eventually, not at the White House but in the pool of the old YWCA near to Tottenham Court Road station.

Gushing from beneath the ground

AT SCHOOL, MY CHOSEN SPORT was cross-country running. Twice a week I spent an hour or so doing this in the grounds of Kenwood and the part of Hampstead Heath near to Highgate in North London. I have written about this before (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/06/14/my-sporting-life/), but there is one aspect of it that I did not cover. Once a year, those who did cross-country running were accompanied by a teacher, Mr Bowles, who believed that getting covered in mud was an essential part of this form of exercise. I did not share his odd belief. There was one place on the Heath where filthy red coloured mud was guaranteed. This was at a point 410 yards south east of the centre of the grand south facing façade of Kenwood House and a few yards northwest of The Stock Pond, one of the series of Highgate Ponds.

The reason that this spot, favoured by Mr Bowles, was and still is, always sodden is that it surrounds a natural spring, which issues from a cylindrical stone well-head covered with stone carvings. These include depictions of a squirrel, a fish, and the head of a man with a luxuriant moustache. The water issues from a pipe emerging from the man’s mouth and then drops into a carving of a scallop shell before some of it falls into a drainage grid and the rest all over the place.  

This well head is called Goddisons Fountain. It was constructed in 1929 (https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2019/04/19/the-healing-springs-of-hampstead/) and named in honour of Henry Goddison, who campaigned vigorously for saving Kenwood and Hampstead Heath from being built on and for preserving it for the use of the public. It is not known whether there was a spring on this spot prior to 1929, but it is not unlikely that there was.

Goddisons Fountain is the last surviving spring issuing chalybeate (iron rich) water in the Hampstead/Highgate area. Prized for its supposed curative properties, especially during the 18th century, there were several springs issuing this kind of mineral water in Hampstead. A fine example of a now disused spring well-head can be seen at the eastern end of Well Walk in Hampstead. It was for public use and located across the road from the Hampstead spa that thrived during the 18th century (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/01/15/a-house-a-spa-and-grays-anatomy/).

If, unlike many who stroll on the Heath, you do not wish to try the chalybeate water issuing copiously from Goddisons fountain, the next nearest source of this once highly prized water is about 47 miles south east in The Pantiles at Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

The water flowing from Goddisons Fountain is one of many sources of the water in the Highgate Ponds, which include (descending the slope from Kenwood) the Wood Pond; the Thousand Pound Pond with the trompe l’oeil bridge designed by Robert Adam; the Stock Pond which is directly below Goddisons Fountain; the Ladies’ Bathing Pond; the Bird Sanctuary Pond, where I spotted a heron; the Model Boating Pond, where I saw no boats; the Men’s Bathing Pond; and Highgate Number 1 Pond. The water from the topmost pond flows through the lower ones sequentially. Most of these ponds were dug before the 18th century as reservoirs for London’s water. They were kept full by damming the Hampstead Brook, a tributary of the now hidden River Fleet, in 1777. In addition, numerous streams in the grounds of Kenwood and on Hampstead Heath were diverted to keep them topped up. Now, the ponds form a valuable publicly accessible leisure amenity. Hardy souls gain great enjoyment in swimming in the gender segregated open-air ponds, whose waters are not subjected to any purification or disinfection procedures. During the present covid19 ‘lockdown’, it is only wildfowl that can enjoy their water.

As we looked at Goddisons Fountain today in late January 2021, I recalled my muddy encounters with it in the company of Mr Bowles and realised that I had not seen it since early 1970, that is just over half a century ago. And it was not until I wrote this that I learned that the fountain is the last surviving chalybeate spring in the part of the world, where I was brought up.

Make a bigger splash

UNLIKE MANY PLACES IN ENGLAND, Penzance in Cornwall did not get a mention in the Domesday Book published in 1086 although there is archaeological evidence of a bronze age settlement in the area. The first written mention of the town is in a document dated 1284, when it was listed as ‘Pensans’. The etymology of the town’s name derives from the Cornish words ‘penn sans’ meaning ‘holy headland’.

We discovered recently, on our first visit to the town, that Penzance in the far south-west of the British Isles is very pleasant and full of interesting buildings and other attractions. One of these is the long seafront promenade from which the visitor can see nearby Newlyn in one direction and St Michael’s Mount, Britain’s answer to France’s Mont St Michel, in another. Incidentally, Penzance is further west than anywhere in mainland France.

A row of poles carrying large flags, on which pictures of a diving ladies, dressed in old-fashioned blue striped bathing dresses, were printed, attracted our attention. The flags were fluttering vigorously in the strong breeze. They were placed next to the wall surrounding a large triangular open-air swimming pool two of whose walls project out into the sea. The pool was divided into two sections, one with a greater area than the other. Plenty of people were swimming in both parts. The design of the pool immediately made us think that it had elements suggestive of the art deco style that was popular in between the two World Wars.

The pool is known as the Jubilee Pool. A plaque at its main entrance informs that the pool was opened on the 31st of May 1935 (during the year of the Silver Jubilee of the reign of King George V), confirming our suspicion that it was built in the era of art deco. A website (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1221190) contains the information that the pool was built to the designs of the Borough Engineer Captain F Latham, and it adds that the pool:

“… is now the finest surviving example of its type with the exception of the Saltdean Lido in Brighton (listed grade II). In Europe, lidos such as the Piscine Molitor in Paris of 1929 were the first to adopt the modernist style in order to embody the worship of sunlight and physical fitness. The seaside lido manifested the transformation of sea bathing in the 1920s from a predominantly health activity into a leisure activity, and because it was freed from the constraints in planning of more conventional pools it presented local authorities with the opportunity to emulate Continental fashions.”

The water in the two sections of the pool differs in temperature. In the lager part of the bath, it is unheated but in the smaller part, it is heated. Currently, a bather pays up to £4.25 to swim in the unheated section, and up to £11.75 to swim in the ‘Geothermal Pool’, whose water is between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius (https://jubileepool.co.uk/tickets/). Despite locals receiving a discount on ticket prices, many choose to swim in the sea amongst the Battery Rocks that surround the pool and the extension of the promenade that runs along the eastern edge of the bath. One local, who was dressed in a wet suit and had just been in the sea thought the ticket prices were a bit steep and told us that during September, the end of summer, the sea is actually quite warm.

The Geothermal Pool is filled with salt water heated by geothermal energy. The idea of installing this feature derives from Charlie Dixon, who in 2010:

“…had just returned from a trip to New Zealand where he had bathed in geothermal pools … Ten years and a £1.8m funding package later (not to mention an incredible amount of work by the Jubilee Pool Directors and staff) the first geothermally heated pool of its kind in the UK opens to the public on 1st September 2020 …

… The system operates by extracting warm water from one geothermal well (410m deep – the height of one and a half Eiffel Towers!!), taking heat out of that water using heat pumps and distributing it to the pool via a heat exchanger, before re-injecting the cooler water back into the ground.  This combined system means that the temperature of the pool can be sustained with a very low carbon footprint. The initial pool heating results suggest that it’s about 80% geothermal but ultimately all the energy is coming from our geothermal well. We are using the heat pumps to concentrate that energy to the exact temperature required for the pool.” (https://jubileepool.co.uk/pool-info/geothermal/).

Although the Jubilee Pool geothermal system is the first of its kind in the UK, it was not the first pool or lido to use naturally heated water. The Romans heated the water at Bath with naturally warm spring water.

We wandered along the eastern side of the pool towards a carved stone obelisk that overlooks the triangular pool and the expanse of Battery Rocks. It stands on the site of a gun battery that was built in 1740 when Britain’s relations with Spain deteriorated. The obelisk, a war memorial, was designed by Sir Edward Warren and erected in 1922. It was unveiled by Mrs Bolitho on the 14th of May 1922. She was the wife of Thomas Bedford Bolitho (1835-1915), a Cornish politician (Liberal Unionist MP), banker, and industrialist, of Trewidden (Cornwall). Bolitho is a western Cornish surname and that of a prolific writer and biographer, Hector Bolitho (1897-1974), whose biography of Jinnah, the creator of Pakistan, was published in 1954. Hector was born in New Zealand and migrated to the UK in about 1924. Hector’s grandfather emigrated from Cornwall to New Zealand. It would be interesting to know whether Hector and Thomas were related, even remotely.

We saw plenty of folk bathing in the sea near the pool. They sheltered behind towels that flapped about in the breeze whilst they slipped in and out of their bathing suits. None of them, with whom we spoke, complained about the water’s temperature. In addition to humans enjoying the environment I spotted several cormorants contemplating the sea from their perches on the rocks. The Jubilee Pool and the rocks near it are some of the lovely features that make a visit to Penzance delightful.

Sergeant B

gymnast near assorted country flags

 

I have always been hopeless at all physical activities such as sports and gymnastics. I enjoy walking and have in the past played tennis half-heartedly.

At school, we had to attend gymnastics classes (‘gym’ for short). In the school I attended between the ages of 8 and 13, gym classes were held at the gymnasium at the public baths in London’s Swiss Cottage. The gym teachers there took a delight in making a misery of the lives of those, like me, who were no good at gym. 

When I moved to Highgate School, my senior (or high) school, things changed for the better. Gym classes were held in the school’s own rather antiquated gymnasium beside the unheated open-air swimming pool. The classes were conducted by a retired military man, Sergeant B.  He was not in the least bit interested in those, like me, without any skills in gymnastics. All that he wanted was that the useless members of the class kept well out of the way of those who had some aptitude for gym. This suited me fine. I used to spend the gym classes seated at one edge of the room, doing nothing.

In summer, we had to swim in the open-air pool. This was quite comfortable if it was raining, but it felt icy cold on a warm sunny day. As with gym, swimming was not one of my strengths. Once again, Sergeant B was not interested in people like me. The poor or non-swimmers were told to stand in the shallow end of the pool and to keep out of the way of the rest of the class.

No doubt it would have been better if Sergeant B had encouraged the ‘useless’ members of the class to gain some enthusiasm for gym and swimming, but I cannot say that I regretted his neglect.

Sergeant B retired many years ago. Nowadays, pupils at Highgate School cannot expect such a casual approach when it comes to physical exercises.

 

Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

Keeping fit

Evening jogger_240

 

While I was engaged to my wife, she suggested that I join her at her health club and try some of its facilities.

The first time I went, I decided to go swimming. After swimming two lengths very slowly, I managed to climb out of the pool, exhausted and breathless.

For the next visit, my wife-to-be suggested that I try a session in the sauna. She thought it would do me good and would  not be particularly exhausting. I removed most of my clothes and sat alone in the poorly-lit sauna room. After a few minutes I began feeling cold, and started shivering. Fed up with this miserable experience, I left the sauna, and got dressed. The sauna had not been switched on!

Undismayed by this, I decided to give the sauna another try a week later.  This time it was switched on, and steaming hot. Because my first visit had been so boring, I decided to take a magazine into the sauna to read to pass the time. I took my place on a bench alongside some very muscular men and opened my copy of a glossy BBC clasical music magazine. Within minutes, the glue holding my magazine together melted. Numerous pages covered with fascinating information about classical music floated gently downward on to the floor of the sauna, Sheepishly, I recovered some of them, and then hurried out of the sauna.

“Why not try the exercise cycles next time? ” my wife asked. “Good idea,” I replied reluctantly. So, a week later, I sat in the saddle of an exercise bike. My wife was seated on a neighbouring cycle pedalling away while reading a book resting on the handle bars. The third cycle in the room was being pedalled furiously by a man lstening to his Sony Walkman through a pair of headphones. Meanwhile, I was just trying to move my cycle’s pedal … completely unsucessfully. After a few minutes, I abandoned the cycle, and after that I have never bothered with health clubs again. 

“That’s a pity,” you might think.

But, maybe not, as I will explain.

When I was practising as a dentist, quite a few patients, often young men, used to limp when they walked into my surgery. Almost everyone of them had injured knees or tendons whilst playing football or running, or trying to keep ‘fit’. When I saw them, I thought how lucky I was that I did not become addicted to ‘keeping fit’.

Wasting time by the pool

Pool side_240

 

My parents, like many other parents, wanted me to learn to swim. I was a reluctant learner. The reason was I could not believe that if I took my foot off the floor at the bottom of the pool or the sand beneath the sea, I would not sink like a stone. I could watch others swimming, but could not understand how they could do it and how much they enjoyed it.

Almost every Saturday morning, I used to be taken to one pool or another to get private swimming lessons. Year after year, these produced no results. I could not learn to swim. My parents must have spent a small fortune on these fruitless swimming lessons.

At school, we were taken to a public swimming bath at least once a week  during the Summer Term. The teachers supervising us were uninterested in those, like me, who were unable to swim. We were told to remain at the shallow end of the pool and not to move from there. This happened both at my primary school and also at secondary school.

Eventually my parents learnt of a Mr Brickett, who gave swimming lessons on Saturday ornings at the YWCA, which used to exist in Great Russell Street near Tottenham Court Road Underground Station. The red brick building still stands, but now it serves another purpose. 

Mr Brickett had a system that involved the pupil wearing an inflatable buoyancy arm-band arround each upper arm. Each armband had two separate inflatable chambers. With these fully inflated, I became convinced that I could make it across the pool without my feet touching the bottom. Each week, Mr Brickett would inflate the armbands a little less than the previous week, and then the pupil would be encouraged to swim to and fro across the pool. After a few weeks, I swam across the pool wearing my armbands. When I had done this, Mr Brickett revealed to me that he had not inflated the armband at all and that I was swimming without their assistance.  As I trusted Mr Brickett, I removed the bands and under his watchful eye I swam across the pool unaided. For this, I was awarded a certificate with my name and a Union Jack flag on it. It certified that I had swum 10 yards unaided, under my own steam.

 

I hardly ever swim any more, but I used to enjoy it a little bit, especially in the sea. I am glad that my parents persisted with the lessons, but regret that my slow progress led them to waste so much of their spare time by the pool.