Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XVI - A Christmas Dip

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THERE are few more exhilarating things, on a breezy  spring morning, than a spurt across that wonderful  rus in urbe - Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park - for  a prospective dip in the Serpentine, where, at  specified hours every morning and evening, waterloving  London is privileged to disport itself in its  congenial element. So congenial is it, in fact, that  some enthusiastic individuals do not limit themselves  to warm summer mornings, or the cooler ones of  springtide and autumn, but bathe all the year round  - even, it is said, when a way for their manoeuvres  has to be cut through the ice. Skirting the north  bank of the Serpentine at morning or evening in the  summer, the opposite shore appears absolutely pink  with nude humanity, the younger portion dancing  and gambolling very much after the manner of  Robinson Crusoe's cannibals. The bathers occasionally  look a great deal better out of their integuments  than in them. Not from this class, however,  do your all-the-year-round bathers come. The Arab  is an exotic - a child of the Sun, loving not to disport  himself in water the temperature of which shocks his [-130-] tentative knuckles, as he dips them in the unaccustomed  element. His wardrobe, again, is too much  after the fashion of that pertaining to Canning's  needy knife-grinder to make an al fresco toilette  other than embarrassing. From the all-the-year-round  bathers, as a nucleus, there has grown up,  within the last few years, the Serpentine Swimming  Club; and on Christmas-day in the morning they  have an annual match open to all comers - though, it  need scarcely be said, patronized only by those whom,  for brevity's sake, we may term all-rounders.
    Now, I had often heard of this Christmas-day  match, and as often, on Christmas-eve, made up my  mind to go; but the evening's resolution faded away,  as such resolutions have only too often been known to  do, before the morning's light. This year, however, principally,  I believe, because I had been up very  late the previous night - I struggled out of bed before  dawn, and steered for the Serpentine. A crescent  moon was shining, and stars studded the clear spaces  between ominous patches of cloud. A raw, moist  wind was blowing, and on the muddy streets were  evident traces of a recent shower. I had no notion  that the gates of Kensington Gardens were open so  early; and the sensation was novel as I threaded the  devious paths in morning dawn, and saw the gas still  alight along the Bayswater Road. A solitary thrush  was whistling his Christmas carol as I struggled over  the inundated sward; presently the sun threw a few [-131-] red streaks along the East, over the Abbey Tower;  but, until I had passed the Serpentine Bridge, not a  single human being met my gaze. There, however,  I found some fifty men, mostly with a "sporting"  look about them. The ubiquitous boy was there,  playing at some uncomfortable game in the puddles  round the seats. The inevitable dog stood pensively  by the diving board; and when, by-and-by straggling  all-rounders came and took their morning header, the  quadruped rushed after them to the very edge of the  water, as though he had been a distinguished member  of the Humane Society. He shirked the element  itself, however, as religiously as though he had been  one of London's great unwashed. In the pause  which preceded the race, I learned, from the  Honorary Secretary of the Serpentine Swimming  Club, particulars of its history and of the race itself.  For six years it had been merely a club race ; but last  year it was thrown open. Strangely enough the race  had never been won twice by one man, though the  competitors had been pretty much the same every  year. I also conversed with one of the intending  competitors, who showed me on his breast with  pardonable pride, five medals of the Royal Humane  Society, awarded for saving life in cases of danger  from drowning. The wearer was a Professor of  Natation, and told me that, among his pupils, he had  an old lady sixty-seven years of age, who had just  commenced, and was able to swim some twenty yards [-132-] already. The brave old lady's example may do good;  though it is to be hoped that she may not, at her  time of life, be compelled to exert her art for her own  protection.
    Names were now called, and fourteen competitors  presented themselves - a motley group, clad for the  most part in trousers, horse-rug, and wide-awake, or,  more simply still, in Ulster frieze coat only. The  group of spectators had by this time grown to some  hundreds, nearly all directly interested in the noble  art; and the dips became fast and frequent. Two  flags were placed in the water at the distance of  100 yards from the diving board; on this slender  platform fourteen shivering specimens of humanity  ranged themselves, and at the word of the starter  plunged into the water with that downward plunge  so incomprehensible to the uninitiated. A short,  sharp struggle followed, the competitors swimming  with the sidelong movement and obstreperous puffing  which likens the swimmer so closely to the traditional  grampus. Eventually one of the group is seen  heading the others, and breasting the water with  calm and equable stroke in the old-fashioned style.  He reaches the flag a full yard before his nearest  antagonist. Numbers two and three, following, are  about half a yard apart. The others come in pretty  much in a group. All were picked men, and there  were no laggards. The names of the winners were  as follows :-1. Ainsworth; 2. Quartermain; 3. H. [-133-]  Coulter. The time occupied in the race was 1 min.  24 sec. Immediately after the race there was a rapid  re-assumption of rugs and Ulsters, though some of  the more hardy walked about in the garb of Nature,  making everybody shiver who looked at them.  Finally, the prizes, consisting of three handsome  medals, were distributed by Mr. H. Bedford, who  stood on a park seat and addressed a few genial  words to each of the successful candidates ; then, with  a cheer, and frequent wishes for a Merry Christmas,  the assembly resolved itself into its component parts.  I had taken my accustomed cold tub before coming  out, yet each of these fourteen devoted men appeared  to me as a hero. They were not Herculean individuals:  several of them were mere youths. Some  of the all-rounders were grey-headed men, but there  was about them all a freshness and ruddiness which  showed that their somewhat severe regimen agreed  with them. Fresh from such a Spartan exhibition,  everything seemed very late and Sybaritic in my  domestic establishment, and I could not help revolving  in my mind the question, what would one of  these hardy all-the-year-rounders think of me if he  knew I was ever guilty of such a malpractice as  breakfast in bed? It is a novel method ; but there  are many worse ways of inaugurating the Great Holiday  than by taking - what it had been a novel sensation  for me even to witness - a Christmas Dip in the  Serpentine.