Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Running Clapham Common: RunThrough 10k 2015 (and a 15 mile race in 1869)

I enjoyed the Clapham Common 10k organised by RunThrough on Saturday, with nearly four hundred runners finishing a three lap course around this flat South London park. I suspect too that it will be my last race in sunglasses this year - a glorious sunny morning on this first weekend after the Autumn Equinox. Dan McGrath finished first in 33:50, first woman finisher was Imogen Aimsworth in 36:43 (full results here). I took a couple of minutes off my PB in my first 10k for two years, so was more than happy.

The start/finish was near to the park's grand Victorian bandstand, which along with the local underground station inspired the event's fine medal 

There's always people running round Clapham Common, and a number of local running groups/ clubs use the park regularly - including Clapham PioneersClapham Runners, Sweatshop's running group (from their shop just off Clapham High Street in Voltaire Road) and indeed RunThrough themselves who have a free Monday night session there. 

The Common doesn't seem to have quite the rich running history of other South West London parks such as Richmond and Wimbledon - where organised cross country running started out - but it was featuring in races even before it was drained and recreations grounds laid out in the 1870s. This report from 1869 is of a Hare and Hounds race organised by Brixton Football Club. Two 'Hares' - F. Bone and Harry Foster - laid a paper trail across nearly 15 miles of SW London in one hour 57 minutes for the 'hounds' to follow. As well as Clapham Common their run in a loop from Brixton took in Streatham, Tooting and Wandsworth Commons.

The Sportsman, 10 March 1869

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Life is a run downhill - Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), the German philosopher of pessimism, famously once compared human existence to running downhill. For him, life is a futile pursuit with each moment vanishing into nothingness:

'That which has been exists no more; it exists as little as that which has never been... A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands and thousands of years of non-existence: he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more... Of every event in our life we can say only for one moment that it is; for ever after, that it was. Every evening we are poorer by a day.

The whole foundation on which our existence rests is the present — the ever-fleeting present. It lies, then, in the very nature of our existence to take the form of constant motion, and to offer no possibility of our ever attaining the rest for which we are always striving. We are like a man running downhill, who cannot keep on his legs unless he runs on, and will inevitably fall if he stops; or, again, like a pole balanced on the tip of one’s finger; or like a planet, which would fall into its sun the moment it ceased to hurry forward on its way. Unrest is the mark of existence. In a world where all is unstable, and nought can endure, but is swept onwards at once in the hurrying whirlpool of change; where a man, if he is to keep erect at all, must always be advancing and moving, like an acrobat on a rope — in such a world, happiness in inconceivable' (On the Vanity of Existence).

For Schopenhauer then, this ceaseless motion is pointless even if he admits that the alternative would  be 'some timeless, changeless state, one and undiversified' which might be rather dull. But maybe recognising that human life is short and meaningless (at least from the perspective of the universe) offers a kind of freedom. If life is a race from cradle to the grave and nothing more, we need not worry too much about eternity and can find meaning in the moments we have - and just enjoy the run. And what can be better than running down a long slow descent? Now if life was just a run uphill, there might be a cause for pessimism...

The highlight of my weekly 5k at Hilly Fields parkrun - the charge downhill

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Footnotes: Running Experiences

'Footnotes: Running Experiences'  at the Amersham Arms in New Cross earlier this month (2nd  September) was an interesting event, a running-themed spoken word Open Mic night featuring 'tales of poetry in motion'.

First up was New Cross-based artist and runner Veronique Chance with tales of  her 2012 Great Orbital Ultra-Run, undertaken 'over nine consecutive days around the inside of the M25. Conceived as 'point-to-point' from and to 10 different motel stops along the route, this journey did not follow preconceived 'paths' but was about negotiating a route round come what may.  Relayed live from her mobile phone through a stream of images along with her GPS coordinates, this was projected as a moving image work with sound at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, University of Greenwich for the exhibition 'Evil Sport and Ultra Run''. Veronique showed images from this run/performance while reading extracts from her daily run notes. Of course Iain Sinclair wrote a whole book about walking the London Orbital, but I think his progress in the company of literary and artistic visionaries was slightly more leisurely than Chance's solo navigation of traffic, fences and other hazards, as described for instance in this extract:

'I spend much of the rest of the journey negotiating private farm land and scrubland and climbing over a lot of small barbed wire fences to keep alongside the motorway... In the the middle of all of this I nearly got attacked by a rotweiler that was loose inside an open gateway. As soon as I tried to pass it began barking aggressively and bounded over towards me. I froze thinking that was it- that I was going to be mauled, but luckily he went back, but I was completely stuck, he was not going to let me pass. My only way out was to climb over a wire fence behind me. I was petrified and almost in tears, but relieved I managed to get out of the situation'.

The Great Orbital Ultra Run (archive clip) 2012 from Veronique Chance on Vimeo.

The event was arranged by SE London-based writer Vybarr Cregan-Reid - a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Kent - and he read an extract from his forthcoming book, 'Footnotes: running, landscape & the way we live now'. The book aims to be a  'psychogeography of running that darts between poetry, philosophy, neuroscience, history, paleoanthropology, and biomechanics. It is a running book for those that love the new nature writing' (see his Pyschojography blog). The extract he read recalled his impressions of going for a run round Walden pond in Concord, Massachusetts and the irony of coming across a 'no running' sign in this area now preserved as a tourist shrine to the writer Henry David Thoreau who lived there and famously celebrated the natural world as an escape from such restrictions.

After a few short open mic contributions - including a piece from me on breathing and running which I will write up at some point, exercise scientist Mike Rogerson discussed some of the latest research from the University of Essex's Green Exercise Research Group. Essentially this argues that Green Exercise - undertaking 'physical activity while simultaneously being exposed to nature' - brings greater benefits to psychological well-being than doing exercise in 'non-natural' environments. Interesting stuff which sparked a lively discussion about the relationship between environmental and social factors. The argument is less that 'countryside' (actually mostly human-created landscape) is better than 'city', but that within urban areas we might get more benefit from running in parks and other green spaces than from running down a treeless street. Not surprisingly, parkrun is one research focus and Rogerson has been involved in a study to compare effects of four different parkrun courses.

More running related literature:

Sunday, 13 September 2015

100 parkruns later (and Hilly Fields 3rd birthday)

Yesterday was my 100th parkrun, and it also happened to be the 3rd birthday of my home Hilly Fields parkrun where I have run 78 times. After running more than 240 miles around the park I think I know that green haven in the London Borough of Lewisham pretty well. Yesterday the course record of 201 runners was equalled, and as has now become a tradition on its birthday the course was run in the opposite direction to normal. There was cake a-plenty and I added a couple of bottles of prosecco for my celebrations (which I hasten to add I shared widely - it wasn't all for me).

'Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for a toast to Hilly Fields parkrun on its 3rd birthday
 and for Neil's 100th parkrun'

I've written before about Hilly Fields parkrun  and the history of the park, and there's plenty to be said about the continuing growth of parkrun across the world. In this post I am going to concentrate on the impact of parkrun on my running and on the wider athletics community.

I began running regularly for the first time since I was 18 about three years ago, starting out with the NHS Couch to 5k training programme - a nine week series of podcasts which gradually build up your running distance. I think it was through their website that I first heard about parkrun and found one near to me in Hilly Fields which had been going for just over six months. I remember on my first run there in April 2013 my main worry was just getting round without stopping, or indeed collapsing - I really didn't know what to expect. My first time was 27:10 but within a month I had knocked the best part of three minutes off that, encouraged by the immediate feedback of parkrun times. 100 parkruns later my best time at Hilly Fields is 20:58 and on the flatter Burgess Park course I have a parkrun PB of 19.42. 

So plainly parkrun has helped me become a much faster and more committed runner, but its impact has gone way beyond that. Before parkrun I hadn't taken part in an organised running event since school cross country and an orienteering race when I was at Sixth Form. Parkrun for me, as for many others, has been a gateway to the world of athletics, so that running has moved beyond a fitness activity to participation in a sport. It has given me the confidence to take part in all kinds of events, starting with a couple of 10ks and then progressing through half marathons to do my first marathon in London earlier this year. 


Perhaps most remarkably it was through parkrun that I came to join a club. Two years ago that would have been unimaginable - what could have been more intimidating? But as friendly faces at Hilly Fields told me about Kent AC, based not far away at Ladywell Arena, I realised that I could give it a go. There has been a steady stream of recruits to the club via parkrun, and many of us have gone on to take part in cross country and other inter-club races. In the process most of us have got significantly faster.

So parkrun has been good for so many of us. But what about its impact on the wider running world? As parkrun grew from its early beginnings in Bushy Park in 2004 not everyone in athletics was overjoyed. There were concerns that the easy availability of free 5k parkruns would undermine membership of athletics clubs and attendance at their events.  Today there are still some nay sayers but most have come round, because where running clubs have actively engaged with their local parkruns they have often reaped the benefits in terms of a big influx of new members. That has certainly been the case with Kent AC, where club members are amongst the run directors at Hilly Fields and run regularly as pacers. I was speaking recently to a self-proclaimed ex-parkrun skeptic whose Essex club had similarly recruited more than 100 members as a result of helping organise local parkrun events. Growing membership of clubs has also led to some club competitions becoming increasingly popular. Of course the effect isn't universal and some clubs and events do struggle - though in some cases you have to ask whether they could do more to make themselves inclusive and accessible.

I would guess that to date the main impact has been on the quantity rather than quality of club runners. No doubt some great undiscovered talent has emerged through parkrun, but many new club members like me rarely trouble the scores in races. Quantity is not to be sneezed at though - clubs need a broad membership paying their subs in order to be viable and therefore able to support their faster runners. With tracks and other facilities under threat from public spending cuts, clubs using them need the numbers to justify their continued existence.

I think the impact on quality will emerge as some of the younger runners taking part regularly in parkrun and junior parkrun come through. Some of the younger members of our club are out chasing 5k PBs at parkrun every week, and parkrun has become a key part of their training.

As for me... time to get my 100 t-shirt and then start the push to the parkrun 250 club.

Previous posts on parkrun:

All photos above from Hilly Fields parkrun yesterday. Last weekend I took part in Southwark parkrun's second birthday run, with runners cheered home by the Mayor of Southwark, Cllr. Dora Dixon-Fyle:

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Railway Jack & the Lewisham Pet: the Perch brothers & 19th century pedestrianism

Before the rise of athletics clubs in the second half of the nineteenth century, the main focus for organised running in England was on races between individual  runners. In a format not unlike boxing, runners with outlandish nicknames challenged each other through newspaper columns and large crowds turned up to watch and bet on the outcome. Newspapers including Bell's Life in London and The Sporting Life promoted the sport, making national celebrities of some runners, and many local pubs were also involved both in hosting events in their grounds (crowds meant drinkers) and as places where the competitors would lay down their respective stakes for prize money. Runners sometimes had backers who put up the stake money for them, in return taking their share of the winnings. The whole sport was known as 'pedestrianism', a term that covered all kinds of foot-races, including walking races, sprints and longer distance runs.

Two prominent pedestrians in the mid-19th century were brothers from Lewisham: John Perch (alias Railway Jack) and Thomas Perch (sometimes known as the Lewisham Pet).  This is where my club, Kent AC, is based - so as part of exploring its history I have been looking into the earlier world of pedestrianism in this part of South London.

The 1841 census shows the Perch  family living at No. 1, Gothic Cottages, Rushey Green – at the time John was 15 with another brother Richard of the same age (twins?), along with siblings including Thomas (13 - he was baptised in May 1829 at St Mary's Church, Lewisham) and Joseph (7). The Gothic Cottages seem to have been at 110 Rushey Green - an

The father’s occupation is given as castrator. Both Thomas and John were subsequently listed as having the same occupation in the 1851 and 1861 census respectively - in the latter John was living with his parents at 7 James Place, Lewisham with father and son both giving occupation as ‘castrator of stock’.  This is a reminder that at this point Lewisham in Kent had not yet been completely swallowed up by the expanding metropolis - there were still farms in the area.

Railway Jack

Not along after this, John Perch began to make a name for himself as a sprinter and hurdler. In January 1844 'Two very excellently contested foot-races took place... near the eighth mile-stone at Lewisham' with 'a very numerous assemblage of the patrons and admirers of pedestrian performances'. Goldsmiths of Greenwich beat Banks of the West-end over 250 yards and in the second match Perch beat Par over 150 yards (West Kent Guardian, 20 January 1844).

West Kent Guardian, 20 January 1844
Although this Perch is not specifically named, it seems most likely that it was John, as there are other reports from the same year that identify John Perch - or Railway Jack - as a runner, and none I have found at this stage that mention Thomas. We know of some of John Perch's races through contemporary reports, and others from newspaper listings of forthcoming events:

- in August 1844, he won a hurdle race over 350 yards at the Tiger's Head in Lee Green, Lewisham (see post on this race at Running Past);
- 'Perch of Lewisham (alias Railway Jack), and Naylor' were scheduled to 'run a match on Wednesday September 18 [1844] at the Beehive Cricket Ground, Walworth, distance 200 yards, and to leap 10 hurdles, 20 years apart, each hurdle to be 3 feet 4 inches high' (The Era, 8 September 1844);
-  In January 1845 'Railway Jack' - this time described as 'of Greenwich' beat George Parry ('alias Jim Crow') over 150 years at Southend, Lewisham (8 February 1845);
- Later that year he 'ran a quarter of mile race for £5 a side' against W. Berry of Lambeth, with Perch having a head start of ten yards in the race at South End, Lewisham: 'The start was a good one, both going away at a rattling pace. Perch however kept ahead throughout the distance, and went in an easy winner, Berry having given up some distance from the finish' (Bell's 14 Sept 1845)
- In November 1845 he was scheduled to run against Pearce Naylor, over 150 yards at the Tigers Head in Lee Green, Lewisham (The Era, 23 November 1845).

There are reports of challenges too: 'Edward Smith will accommodate Perch, alias Railway Jack, of Greenwich, with a match, and will give him two yards start in 150 for £5 or £10 a side, or he will run him  a quarter of a mile and leap 15 hurdles for £10 a side. The money will be ready at Mr Parr's, Green-street, Grosvenor Square, to-morrow' (Bell's, 4 Feb 1844).

John Perch '(alias Railway Jack) of Lewisham' won 'a silver stop watch' in a 150 yards race beating five others, at the Kings Head in Bexley Heath in November 1847. There was a dispute about whether he should have been allowed to receive the prize as the race was for runners 'who had never won more than £5 in any race', and Perch had  previously won a race against Berry of Lambeth advertised as being for a £10 prize. However the landlord of the Fisherman's Arms in Greenwich confirmed it was in fact only for £5. The landlord is described as the 'stakeholder for that race'- the origin of this term is the person who holds the stake put down for a wager (Bell's, 7 November 1847).

(Bell's Life in London, 7 November 1847)
Intriguingly in 1844, it was reported that 'Railway Jack's youth and S.Penny of Greenwich' will 'run tomorrow... at the Green Man, Southend, Lewisham' (Bell's 10 March 1844). Could this have been his younger brother? Certainly in the following year, both Perch brothers took part in a 350 yard hurdle race in a field by the Tigers Head, Lee along with James Kitchener (the Hampstead Stag) and Ned  Wild (Merrylegs) (Bell's 7 September 1845).

Thomas Perch, the Lewisham Pet

In September 1847, The Era reported 'fun and frolics' in a quarter of a mile race between two runners, 'one named Cross, and the other designated the Lewisham Pet' (The Era, 19 September 1847). The former won in a race in Charlton-lane, Blackheath, where both 'bounded like affrighted antelopes'. The identity of the Lewisham Pet isn't disclosed, but in the report of race in 1850, the same paper refers to Perch 'who revels in the sobriquet of the Lewisham Pet' (Era, 29 September 1850). This was Thomas Perch, though confusingly in this period there was also a boxer, 'Young Bostock' known as 'the Lewisham Pet' (Bell's 26 November 1848).

(The Era, 19 September 1847)
If Thomas Perch started off as John's lesser-known sibling with reports referring to him as 'brother to Railway Jack' (Bells, 28 January 1849) he soon seems to have established a reputation as a runner in his own right.

In January 1849 'nearly two thousand persons assembled' to watch him beat Joseph Judd of Westminster in a 120 yards race at Beddington Corner, Surrey for which 'both men had been in active training'. He was described on this occasion as 'about 5 feet 5 inches in height, and weighs about 8 stone; when stripped, his skin looks a nut brown, is well knit together, and all runners of his size will find him a troublesome character. He first showed in public a short time ago by beating Price of Mile End rather easy in a six score yard race' (Bell's, 28 January 1849).The latter race with William Price was over 130 yards in December 1848 (Bell's, 3 September 1848)

(Bell's Life in London, 28 January 1849)

In the following year he raced James Mayne of Mile End, for £25 a side, at the Flora Ground in Bayswater (Bell's Life in London, 29 September 1850). Once again the report emphasises the runners' preparation - this was a serious sport, not a casual contest between talented but unprepared athletes: 'Both had been actively trained for the event, Mayne under the charge of John Smith of Turnham Green, and Perch had the advice of his brother John at Charlton'. The result 'in one of the best contested races ever witnessed' was declared a dead heat.

(Bell's Life in London, 29 September 1850)

The rematch the following week saw Perch win 'after seven false starts', proving himself 'a very smart runner... a good starter, very quick in getting into full speed' against his 'remarkably game' competitor (Bells 6 October 1850).

Other Thomas Perch races reported as having taken place or being scheduled included the following:

- In April 1849 he was scheduled to race John Owen of Bermondsey at the Red Lion, Smitham Botton (Bell's 25 March 1849);
- In September 1849 he was due to race William Allen of Woolwich over 120 yards, with deposits at the Yorkshire Grey, Blackheath Hill (Bells,  16 September 1849);
- In November 1849 he was planning a 200 yards race with James Patterson (Bell's 21 October 1849);
- In December 1850, T.Perch of Lewisham and R. Marsh of Marylebone were due to run 250 yards at the Isle of Dogs, £10 a side (Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 1 December 1850);
- In 1852 he was scheduled to race Isaac Howarth of Sheffield over quarter of a mile for £10 a side at Copenhagen grounds (Islington), with Perch 'to have four yards start' (Bell's 2 May 1852);
- In the following year he was due to run against H. Stevens of Eltham, the latter with a 'five yards start' with the stakes to be held at the Royal Oak, Greenwich (Bells 6 March 1853).

Perch both issued to challenges to other runners, and was in turn the subject of challenges to him. An example of the former from 1850 reads: 'Thomas Perch will run Jesse Smith, Dawkins, Connor, or Sillitoe a quarter of a mile, or Washington of Crayford three yards  start in 200 for £25 a side. A match can be made at Mr Clarke's, Yorkshire Grey, Blackheath-hill' (Bell's 8 Dec 1850).

Conversely, in April 1853, R.Elliot of Kings Cross challenged 'Perch of Lewisham, Stevens of Eltham' and a couple of other runners to race for '100 or 120 yards a side' (Bell's 17 April 1853). Acceptances of challenges were also published in the press. For instance, it was reported in 1850 that  'Perch of Lewisham will accept Newman's challenge to run 140 yards for £25 a side, and will meet him a the Yorkshire Grey, Blackheath Hill, tomorrow (Monday) night; to run in three weeks from the first deposit. The Editor of Bell's Life to be a stakeholder' (Bells Life, 17 February 1850).

In 1859 Thomas Perch repleid to a challenge from W. Price offering for a match to be made at the Duke of York in Greenwich (Bell's 27 Feb 1859). A race between the two did go ahead at the White Lion, Hackney Wick: Price 'won as he liked by a long distance; Perch being, apparently, anything but fit for a running match' (Sporting Life, 24 March 1859). Perch wasn't finished yet however.  He was nominated to take part in a 100 yards race at the same venue soon afterwards - 'the rendezous of all the Victoria Park pleasure seekers' - in the following month for a silver tankard prize (Sporting Life, 13 April 1859). And in 1860 he was still receiving public challenges: 'T. Schofield of Woolwich will run T.Perch of Lewisham, or Steven of Eltham... An answer to the Sporting Life will be attended to' (Sporting Life, 21 November 1860).


I have also found reference to a couple of cricket matches featuring the Perch brothers. A match between  Lewisham St Germans Club  and Bexley Heath in July 1853 featured an R. Perch, J.Perch and a T. Perch (The Era, 17 July 1853). Another match,  between Lewisham St German's and the City Club at the Roebuck Ground in Lewisham featured a John Perch (who hit 'an immense score on such a ground') and and a R. Perch (The Era, 1 August 1852). In my family history search at ancestry I didn't find another Perch family in Lewisham with individuals with the right name and right age, so it seems almost certain that these were the same Perch brothers.

At some point the Perch brothers must have hung up their running and cricket shoes. In the 1871 census, Thomas was living with his wife at 8 Mercy Terrace, Lewisham – his job given as a labourer. Interestingly at that same address in 1881 were to be found the Brewers - one of several Lewisham families who went on to become important figures in the history of Essex County Cricket Club as groundsmen and players.

Aside from some local colour - nice to know that the Perch brothers both lived within a few minutes run of the Kent AC's current Ladywell track - what does all this tell us? Well in my reading about this period 'pedestrianism' is sometimes looked down upon as some kind of circus sideshow prior to the emergence of 'proper' running under the aegis of running clubs and the Amateur Athletics Association. From my research into the Perch brothers it is clear that they were dedicated runners - training hard and sustaining careers over a number of years as part of a national circuit of like-minded athletes. And judging by their involvement in cricket, they were not separate from the emerging world of organised sports clubs, but at its heart.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Bushy parkrun: a visit to the Mothership

I am approaching my 100th parkrun and surely no centenary is complete without a visit to the place where it all started - Bushy Park, near to Hampton Court in South West London. So last Saturday morning me and J. headed out there in the sunshine for my parkrun no.98.

It was in October 2004 that the first parkrun (then called Bushy Park Time Trial) took place in the park, since when the idea of a free, timed, Saturday morning 5k has spread around the world. A suitably biblical 13 running apostles took part in that first event, and today Bushy Park is something of a pilgrimage site for parkrunners. In fact more than 30,000 individual runners have run in parkrun there, with a regular weekly attendance in the region of 1,000.

The event starts off with the runners arranged along a very wide start-line, rather like at the National Cross Country Championships.After a first charge across the grass the crowd resolves into the usual race dimensions, spread out enough to not be a problem, but with the large numbers meaning runners of all abilities are guaranteed to have people around them for most of the race - a fact that probably lifts performance for many as they get dragged around by those slightly in front. It's a single lap of a flat course too, which certainly helps.

I had expected it to be quite an event, and it was, but I was taken aback by what a beautiful place Bushy Park is - how come I'd never been there before? I heard a talk this week about Green Exercise - the idea that taking exercise in a natural environment brings additional mental well-being benefits (more on this in a later post). Well having a red deer stag chilling out near the start/finish of the race certainly did it for me

Red deer unperturbed by finish funnel
The run starts near to the 17th century 'Diana Fountain' by the park's Hampton Court Road entrance - named not for the late Princess but for the Roman Goddess of the Hunt. Despite being known by that name, many historians now think that the statue actually depicts Arethusa. Either will do as a patron of runners, fleet-footed Diana or Arethusa the nymph who ran so fast from the river god Alpheus that her sweat turned her into a stream.

Many runners retire afterwards to the Pheasantry cafe in the park, good coffee in a gorgeous setting.

If you are travelling from further afield, Hampton Court, Hampton Wick and Teddington stations are all within 2 km of the start. If you're driving there are car parks in the park and if you get there early you should be able to get a spot - later they get very busy. Further details at Bushy parkrun.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Haunts of the Black Masseur

'Haunts of the Black Masseur: the Swimmer as Hero' (1992) is a cultural/literary history of swimming by Charles Sprawson. Its main focus is on writers as swimmers, from the classical period onwards.

For the Romantic poets and those influenced by them, swimming was an embrace of the sublime. Byron considered swimming across the Hellespont in 1810 to be one of his life's greatest achievements, and Edgar Allen Poe was similarly proud of having once swum up the James river against the current. Sprawson compares the Romantic delight in swimming with their fondness for opium,  offering 'self-encapsulation in an isolated world, a morbid self-admiration, an absorption in fantasy':

'The passion for bathing really began with the Romantic generation and 'swim' was a word that particularly appealed to poets… The word suggests a state of suspension, a trance-like condition . .. Like the opium addicts of the nineteenth century analysed by Alathea Hayter, these swimmers felt themselves to be pariahs, elect outcasts, insulated from their fellow men. They too often  experienced through their swims the classic constituents of an opium dream: "the feeling of blissful buoyancy, the extension of time, contrasts of temperature, the bliss of the outcast."  .. Swimming, like opium, can cause a sense of detachment from ordinary life. Memories, especially those of childhood, can be evoked with startling strength and in vivid and precise detail'.

There was also a sexual element - Paul Valery referred to swimming as 'fornication avec l'onde' and wrote: 'I discover and recognise myself when I return to this universal element. My body becomes the direct instrument of my mind, the author of its ideas. To plunge into water, to move one's whole body, from head to toe, in its wild and graceful beauty; to twist about in its pure depths, this is for me a delight only comparable to love'.

Sprawson provides some useful social history too, reminding us that while there may always have been people who swam, swimming as a sport with its own dedicated spaces is a more recent development. The rise  in  popular swimming in Britain was linked with the fashion for bathing at sea resorts from late 18th century, with the first organised races seemingly organised in the 1830s. The first indoor public pools to be built in Britain since Roman times were likewise built in the 19th century.

Styles of swimming have also changed over time. The breaststroke was dominant in English swimming in the first half of the 19th century and Sprawson tells us that  'Frogs were kept in tubs by the sides of pools as a means of instruction'.  The later rise of overarm swimming was influenced by Native American swimming styles, through the medium of such swimmers as Flying Gull and Tobacco who raced the English swimming champion Kenworthy in 1845 'and amazed Londoners with their over-arm windmill stroke'.