I WAS surprised to learn recently that a large number of people in this country don’t know how to swim.
For an island race it really is strange.
I don’t know what the current figures are for Hartlepool, but a big part of my childhood was the expectation of being a swimmer – and you could learn the hard or the easy way.
I start to feel my vintage a bit when I can honestly say that, as a very young boy, I did some early swimming in the bracing water of the old outdoor swimming pool on the Headland.
As you might know, that huge concrete structure was demolished in one night in 1953 by a massive storm down the east coast which caused major damage in England and across the North Sea in the Netherlands.
If you look over the promenade railings at low tide, you can still see the remaining blocks which mark the outline of that pool which was frequently packed on sunny days.
In passing, it’s worth mentioning that the pool was inside the Heugh Breakwater and was still dashed to smithereens in a few hours.
On that evidence, I can never understand the logic of letting that great guardian of Hartlepool crumble – we are clearly not as bright as our forefathers.
The hard way to learn to swim in that pool was being thrown in at the age of five. It really did concentrate the mind, especially as the cold sea water never seemed to warm up even on the hottest days.
With the outdoor pool gone, my swimming education continued in the rather different locations of the North Sea – and Seaton Baths.
Every time I pass the old site (always the baths by the way, never something posh like swimming pool), I seem to hear ghostly echoes of the screams of scores of kids in that huge shed dripping with rust.
I don’t know if it was really demolished or just fell down one day with the weight of decay in the roof.
The other nostalgic sound, but not in a good way, was the sheer bedlam of hordes of shrieking kids in the changing rooms with cheerful games like smacking each other with knotted up wet towels.
Generations of Hartlepool kids were bused across to Seaton for swimming lessons and most of us advanced to life-saving techniques.
For reasons lost in the mists of time, the big test to get your life-saver’s certificate was to dive into the pool wearing pyjamas and dive to the bottom to retrieve a brick.
This ability joined a long list of apparently useless skills taught to us in our formative years.
I once saw a drowning brick but couldn’t help as I had no pyjamas with me.
The one time when I needed a rescue came when I was only about 12 and came close to drowning in the sea just off the beach near the Brus Corner tunnel.
I wasn’t too strong a swimmer and was using a white plastic football, a Frido it was called, to aid my buoyancy.
I’d forgotten how strong those currents could be and was terrified when I put my feet down and couldn’t feel the bottom.
I waved frantically to my friends on the beach – who waved back.
Luckily, a swell came in which pushed me back to the shore and I can remember even now the sheer relief of feeling sand between my toes.
Where’s a bloke in pyjamas when you need him?