Lunchtime Talks: Dive In! A History of River Bathing in Oxford

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We walked to Parson’s Pleasure to bathe. It was the first time I have been there this year: all was cool and green and lovely beyond anything. We had a glorious bathe and then lay on the grass talking of a hundred things till we got hot and had to bathe again.

 – From a diary entry by C. S. Lewis, 7 July 1923


During the pandemic summers of 2020 and 2021, when travel was limited by lockdown restrictions, there was a dramatic revival of river swimming in Oxford. The riverside became the city’s own holiday resort. In the wake of this trend, a handful of half-forgotten names began to resurface in Oxford’s memory: Tumbling Bay, Long Bridges, Parson’s Pleasure, Dame’s Delight…

In this lunchtime talk, one of the organisers of the new exhibition, Dive In! A History of River Swimming, will uncover the history of the city’s bathing places, describing the social and material history of these sites, and reflecting on the way they’ve been imagined in poetry, artwork and fiction. We’ll meet champion swimmers and heroic lifeguards; we’ll trace the rise of swimming for women from the 1880s, mixed bathing in the 1910s, and the sunbathing craze of the Interwar years. Plus, we’ll reflect on the troubles and dangers swimmers have faced, from criminalisation, injury and drowning, to diseases like Weil’s disease.


George Townsend is a writer, teacher and curator from Faringdon with a special interest in the history of public swimming and bathing. He has a PhD in English and Humanities (2022) from Birkbeck, University of London, where he teaches English Literature. His PhD thesis, which he is currently turning into a book, explored the interwoven myths and realities of Parson’s Pleasure, a mens bathing place on the river Cherwell in Oxford, active from the 17th century to 1992, and frequented by William Morris, C.S. Lewis, Oliver Sacks and many others. In 2021, he co-created The Bathing Place, a radio documentary that was awarded the Charles Parker Prize and appeared on Radio 4. George blogs at and sometimes puts pictures on Instagram.

Tickets available from the MOX Gift Shop or buy online (booking fee applies).

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