I have always been a strong advocate of teaching children to swim. Surrounded by water as we are in the fens, I am always amazed at the complacency of parents where swimming is concerned. I suppose it stemmed from the fact that the old generation never had the opportunity to learn and avoided water like the plague-cutting down their chances of drowning by at least 100%.
My parents couldn't swim and I received no encouragement from them to learn. I therefore took matters into my own hands and decided to teach myself. Dunkirk Drain was the Downham Swimming pool-not too deep and at the "Basin" corner possessing a sandy bottom it was an ideal place to learn.
During the summer, hordes of children biked down to Dunkirk to enjoy the water. I must add that these were chiefly male as swimming trunks did not figure prominently in the fenland wardrobe. Indeed nude bathing probably started from these small beginnings. We used to race from the Basin to the wooden bridge (now concrete) and back. Anybody cheating by putting their fee on the bottom to add impetus to their stroke were immediately rumbled as a great surge of greyish mud came to the surface!
We also had mudfights; all one had to do was to reach down to the bottom and grab a handful of mud, lovely grey slimy mud and hurl it at anyone who happened to be in range. There were no sides. It was every man for himself. Talk about mudpacks-nothing can be better for the skin than to be hit full in the face by about a pound of mud travelling at about forty miles an hour- and how it stank. You could smell it for a week afterwards-it did not however ward off pimples! I think some of my happiest memories are of those mudfights in the Dunkirk Drain; your sense of smell was not assailed by chlorine-just mud, glorious mud!
I learned to swim in the Dunkirk drain by a fluke; whenever possible I used to borrow a swimtube and with the best of them swim the "marathon" to the bridge and back, al of three hundred yards. Arriving back someone commented,
"Ere, your tube's gone flat!" And so it had. I thought to myself "If I can can swim all that way encumbered by a flat tube then I've beaten it".
In ten minutes I'd become a confident swimmer and since that time have tought several youngsters to swim, including some of my own childre, by the devious method of employing a tube and gradually letting the wind out of it until it was empty. When they saw they had been "conned" they swam unaided; it works-try it sometime.