There is a little London glamour attached to the modest, beautifully proportioned and very lovely lido at Chipping Norton. It was Jeremy’s 70th birthday pool party, and our arrival brought to mind that other Chipping Norton Jeremy – Clarkson. True to Top Gear form, he once drove a Rolls Royce into the pool, and there are images of the stunt in the foyer of the lido, as well as the radiator from the Roller itself. J-Clark and Alex James (cheesemaker and former Blur band-member) have run the annual pool auction on and off for years. This helps keep this privately owned pool afloat, financially solvent, since the town council washed their hands of it in 2002 – too expensive they said. Samantha Cameron was, I am told, a regular swimmer there, husband Dave not so, although sympathetic. Local people raised funds to have the pool built in the first place, and it opened in 1970. A generation on, and council funds were tight, but the Keep Our Pool Open campaign raised enough to buy it out. I don’t know the detail, but to my mind it is a fine example of local action. The company formed to manage it was and remains the Chipping Norton Lido Limited. Similarly imaginatively-named were the Chipping Norton Recording Studios. A song from my Papua New Guinea soundtrack (which is dominated by Bowie) is ‘Baker Street’ by Gerry Rafferty. This was recorded here – the amazing saxophone riff in the middle is worth listening to repeatedly – it takes me back straight away now, and my daughter, in her twenties, tells me it’s cool now too. A verse from the song goes ‘He's got this dream about buying some land; He's gonna give up the booze and the one-night stands; And then he'll settle down In some quiet little town; And forget about everything’. Did Chipping Norton inspire that verse? I would like to think so.
Many of the rock-notables (and wannabe notables) came in their Rollers to Chippy to record – Jeff Beck, Duran Duran, Marianne Faithfull, Alison Moyet, Radiohead, Status Quo, Bay City Rollers, Chris Rea among them. Keith Moon, drummer with The Who owned the Crown and Cushion Hotel in the High Street. I can only imagine a kind-of ‘Fawlty Towers’ management style, something like Basil Fawlty on speed. More sensibly, Princess Margaretha of Sweden, sister of Carl XVI Gustav lives in Chippy. I have no idea if she swims at the lido, but wouldn’t it be great if she did? I have never struck up a conversation with a princess in a pool, although I have a genuine princess as a colleague at my work, and I once supervised a Spanish princess when I was at Cambridge. What is it about anthropology and royalty? Gabriella Windsor (the clue is in the name) did her Masters in anthropology in my department a decade or so ago. Charles, Prince of Wales did his undergraduate degree, badly, in Archaeology and Anthropology at the Cambridge Department I worked in, but many years before I got there. I am sure Margaretha of Sweden is very sensible and keeps a low profile. Chippy has many stars and notables, a kind of Hampstead in the hills. While Hampstead has its Ponds, Chippy has its Lido.
The star tonight is Jeremy, whose link to Chippy Lido is strong – he always carries a season ticket, the season being summer-long, swims here when he can, and lives now but a short walk away. The other star is Karen, Jeremy’s wife, who unstintingly supports his swimming passion, tonight at the Lido, setting up the party. Many old friends are here, including Liz, the manager of the Lido when she is not being a theatre designer, Kristie and Judy, Christa, Jim, Leslie. And Polly and Patrick, of the Chippy-independent book-shop, Jaffe & Neale, which has the very books you never knew you couldn’t do without, tea and fantastic cake. I met Polly at synchronised swimming classes last year, of course at Chippy Lido. I thank/blame Jeremy for the introduction to synchro. He took classes during the previous summer and spoke of how wonderful it was, hard work, but wonderful – first-time synchro swimmer at the age of 68. I was 64 the summer when I took my classes – again at Chippy Lido. How to describe it - it was not Rio 2016 Russian Olympic synchro, with scary precision and make-up. Nor was it Swimming with Men, the very sweet movie about a men’s synchro team, with Rob Brydon, Rupert Graves and Jim Carter. Chippy synchro was mostly women, many having taken lessons before, fit and strong, who could do things with their bodies in the water that should carry a health warning beyond the age of fifty years. Sometimes the only man, sometimes with Jeremy, and sometimes with Polly’s young-adult son, striving and sinking, sometimes gaining a glimpse of satisfaction in doing something I thought impossible at the start of the evening, I synchro-sank more than I synchro-swam. I strived for a gold star for effort, trying to please our very chilled but authoritative coach, a champion in so many ways, whose very occasional ‘well done’ brought a school-boy glow to my heart.
The morning after synchro was always telling – my body telling me I shouldn’t be doing this, especially in my sixties. Getting out of bed the night after synchro, I was a broken man – twisted and hurting in places I didn’t know I had. My body screamed “do not go back next week!”. But I did, chanting the mantra “better to have synchro-ed in my sixties than to have never synchro-ed at all”. I was happy with my achievements, happy that Jeremy led me to this particular water. It had been my plan to have one of my 65@65 swims doing synchro at Chippy Lido, as I planned a return to synchro in the summer of 2020. Synchro class fell victim to Covid-19 lock down, but tonight there was to be a momentary synchro rebellion.
Jeremy’s 70th birthday party, and in his words, to celebrate his entry into second childhood, he, or rather Karen, his wife, fell upon the idea of a pool party. How could anyone vaguely interested in swimming refuse a pool party? It is a birthday, there will be cake as well as swimming and messing around in the water, what is not to like? Karen, Kristie and Christa have all brought cake. There is plenty of cake. Almost too much cake (can you every have too much cake?). In the water we swim, we frolic and float, form (socially distanced) groups, talk, mingle – it seems to be easier to have a socially distanced pool party than a stand-up drinks and food party. Chippy Lido has plenty of lawn, plenty of space to be both separate and together in a separated kind of way.
Separate and together is how the synchro moves started that night, almost organically from conversation into action. For starters there was Liz, Jeremy and me, struggling with synchro-skulling and wiggling our legs – “try the egg-beater” suggested Jeremy, unhelpfully. For those that don’t know, the egg-beater is a form of synchro-torture which involves keeping yourself afloat while circling your legs in opposite directions – an egg-beater in the water. Try that after a knee replacement but seven weeks ago. Then in came Elsa, who synchro-ed like she was born to it. And then there was Leslie, who had never synchro-ed but who watched and copied. Leslie is super-fit to the core, and took to it like a, well, Russian synchro-swimmer. Me - I was hardly fit enough to swim post-surgery, let alone beat eggs in the water, be a flamingo or a crane (but I tried). My new knee didn’t know this was how life with me would be, and wanted it struck out of the contract. I settled upon the simplest knee-friendly move - sculling on my back mostly, propelling myself forward slowly. Bex then came over and asked how to scull forwards. She was of course an instant natural at this and made a competition of it – “race you to the end” she said. We raced, she won, time flew by. The hour and a half went so quickly and there was limited time for cake and speech from Jeremy. The party was exactly the right thing, everyone agreed, missing swim-socialising across the Covid-19 summer . The sun shone then dipped and dropped, throwing at us a pink and red sunset – we glowed in the changing light, no-one more so than Jeremy, the star in the Chipping Norton swim firmament.
On reflection driving back - the swimming, who could say no to a swim? The syncho - new muscles were found again. The party - old friendships were renewed after long absences, new ones made, mostly with the non-swim partners of swim-friends. It was the very best of an evening, of a party, such a good thing. My birthday wish to Jeremy is that he has continues to have much fun and many frolics in the water, long into his seventies and beyond. I wish him the discovery of the stiff muscles of his youth and that he continue to enjoy life to its fullest, to continue to call us to do new things; may he be forever young.
Once home, Pauline and I were tired and went straight to bed. In the morning there was the pain of protesting muscles, the muscle-memory of a fine night out at Little Glamour in the Cotswolds, at the equally fine Chipping Norton Lido, and in the company of the very splendid Jeremy and Karen and of friends who shared a very special evening.
Thanks to Karen and Jeremy Wellingham for the Chippy synchro images