Caitlin and her daughter – pic by Ruth Corney
Caitlin Davies is an author who has the uncanny knack of discovering fascinating stories that have often, up until she finds them, been somewhat overlooked . Whether it is chronicling the history of swimming in Hampstead Heath, or exploring Holloway Prison – a place that was home to “royalty and socialites, spies and prostitutes… Nazis and aliens, terrorists and freedom fighters” Caitlin always seems to find new and interesting voices to illuminate her tales.
Caitlin is already a much loved author among the swimming community, not just for Taking The Waters, the Hampstead Heath book, but also Downstream, a book which recounts the largely forgotten history of people who swam in the river Thames. This autumn sees the arrival of Daisy Belle, another swimming-related book, but this time a work of fiction, that was largely inspired by the career of Agnes Beckwith – more on whom in a while.
Here Caitlin explain how she fell in love with swimming, what inspired her swimming books and how much she admires the female swimming pioneers who had to battle to secure the same aquatic rights as men.
Where does your passion for swimming come from?
I was lucky to live in Portugal for a while as a child, and learned to swim in the sea when I was around four years old. I also grew up not far from the bathing ponds and lido on Hampstead Heath in north London, so I was spoilt for choice. I could swim in a glorious 60-metre long unheated lido, in the Mixed Pond in the company of ducks, or in a secluded women-only pond.
As a kid I loved the lido, splashing in the shallow end, rushing down the slides and chutes, sucking Orange Maid ice-lollies, shivering with cold and refusing to get out.
As a teenager in the 1970s I was so keen to get into the women’s pond there were times we would break the ice. But then somewhere along the way I lost a bit of the passion. It was only when I started writing about the history of swimming that I really began swimming again.
This morning at the lido I overheard a woman saying to a friend, ‘this place keeps me sane.’ That’s exactly what I think. Swimming has kept me going through bad times. Plus it makes me laugh.
Swimming is also a bit like writing, sometimes I swim fast, sometimes I’m just floating. It helps to clear my mind, to untangle a plot or work out a character. At night when I can’t sleep I often picture myself climbing up the lido’s concrete steps and looking at the empty pool – in my imagination it’s always empty – and there I am, about to get in.
Parliament Hill Lido – pic Glyn Roberts
What inspired you to write Taking the Waters: a Swim around Hampstead Heath? Did you ever think it might be a bit too niche as a book? Are we going to see a reprint?
The photographer Ruth Corney suggested writing a book about the lido because it was about to celebrate its 70th anniversary. Then we decided on a book about all four public swimming spots, including the Mixed, Men’s and Women’s ponds. I’d never stopped to think about their history until then, they were just places where I’d always swum. I used to be dragged moaning across the heath every Christmas morning as a child, to watch the annual swimming race at the men’s pond. I had no idea this tradition had been going on since the 1890s. I soon realised that the whole history of outdoor swimming, professional diving and lifesaving was tied up with the birth of the ponds. So it became a story of a specific place but a place that has national and international significance.
Last year I took delegates from the Royal Life Saving Society – including representatives from Africa, Australia and Asia – on a guided tour. These ponds are known worldwide.
I’ve often been told my books are too niche. My most recent book Bad Girls: A History of Rebels and Renegades tells the 164-year history of Holloway prison, the country’s oldest and most famous prison for women. I was told that was niche as well!
I’d love to see Taking the Waters reprinted; we get requests for it all the time. It has inspired a number of other books on swimming and it’s really disappointing telling people it’s now out of print. But I’m afraid that’s up to the publishers….why don’t you drop them a line?!
The book has many wonderful anecdotes. How did you end up tracking down some of the older swimmers/lifeguards etc?
At the beginning I thought, where am I going to find some old swimmers? Then I thought, I’ve been swimming at the lido for half a century, I am an old swimmer.
Once we put the word out among heath swimmers and lifeguards then a lot of people agreed to tell me their anecdotes. But it still took a long time. People love their ponds and can be very protective about them. I had to be persistent and build up a lot of trust.
In Downstream you chronicle the history of swimming in the Thames? What inspired to you to write this. I’d love to think it was during a dip in the river somewhere?
It was Agnes Beckwith and Annette Kellerman who inspired Downstream. Agnes was a Victorian champion and Annette is the famous Australian swimmer of the 20th century. I read a reference to a Thames swim Agnes had made in 1875 – while I was writing Taking the Waters – and I wondered how many other people were swimming in the Thames at that time. Then I read about a Thames swim Annette had made in 1905 and that set me off on a long trip down the river hunting out stories.
I also did three Thames swims of my own, in the upper Thames with SwimTrek, around the Millwall Dock, and a swim with the Chalkwell Redcaps Club in the estuary. I was full of trepidation about these swims, but they got me hooked. It was only later I remembered that I had actually swum in the Thames as a ten year old, mucking about in the river in Berkshire.
Hampstead Mixed Ponds
Could you recommend one place in the Thames where wannabe wild swimmers should go this summer?
The Thames is 215 miles long so there are plenty of places to choose from, the upper river around Lechlade can be very tranquil and I had a great swim in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. But if you don’t know the Thames I wouldn’t go alone, you need to know where to get in, what to look out for, and where to get out.
You can’t officially swim in central London, but the Thames Baths Project has come up with a floating lido, designed by Studio Octopi, that will be built right in the city. They crowdfunded the early stages, and I have my free swimming token, all ready for the day they open.
You have written six novels, as well as all your non-fiction books. Which do prefer? How different is the approach to writing fiction as opposed to non-fiction?
It can be a relief to turn to fiction after working on a nonfiction book, there is far more scope to make things up. But I love all the research needed for non-fiction. The approach is similar in many ways, how can I tell this story? How can I make it readable?
Your next book Daisy Belle is a novel about swimming (and many other things), inspired by the career of Agnes Beckwith. Can you explain who she was, what attracted you to her story and how much of the book is based on real life?
I’ve been thinking about Agnes Beckwith for years, ever since I first read the work of sports historian Dr Dave Day. I mentioned Agnes briefly in Taking the Waters, and in more detail in Downstream, but there were so many unanswered questions.
What did it actually feel like when she swam the Thames in 1875? What did her mother think of her daring aquatic feats? Writing a novel based on her life, as well as the career of Victorian diver Annie Luker, gave me the freedom to really think about the prejudice she had to face and how hard she must have fought.
Much of Daisy Belle is based on real life, from Agnes’ first Thames swim to her performance in a whale tank, and her swim across New York Harbour. Real historical characters also appear, such as Captain Matthew Webb, the Channel champion. But the relationships in the novel are largely fictional.
I also knew for a long time that I wanted to set a novel at the Mixed Pond, its history is so interesting that I decided to have my character Daisy Belle give lessons and perform there in the 1880s. It gave me a good excuse to swim as much as possible, all in the name of research, and to wonder what life was like at the pond in Victorian times. And although Daisy Belle is fictional, she now seems totally real to me.
Agnes Beckwith pic Ian Gordon
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