When I told a colleague that I must do more outside swimming this year, she laughed at me. But it is one sport I’ve always been pretty good at and I tend to swim a lot when I’m back in Austria, so this year I was determined to take the plunge back in the UK.
This led me to Hathersage, a picturesque village in the Peak District. Just a stone’s throw from Sheffield, it is the kind of place that you see printed on postcards. Beautiful stone houses, a church on the hill and scenery to die for.
It is hard to imagine that this rural idyll was once full of smoke-belching mills, when Hathersage was the centre of the needle, pin and wire drawing industry in the 19th-century. The dust started to settle around 1900 and although some mills remain, long gone are the dangerous industries associated with them.
Equally surprising is the village’s literary connections – which become apparent with a stroll up to St Michael and All Angels Church. For it was at the neighbouring vicarage that Charlotte Bronte once stayed.
Charlotte’s best friend at school was Ellen Nussey, whose brother Henry became vicar of Hathersage in 1845. When Henry married, Ellen asked Charlotte to stay with her at the vicarage for about three weeks to prepare for her brother’s return from honeymoon.
Charlotte took the opportunity to explore Hathersage and the village undoubtedly inspired her 1846 novel, Jane Eyre. Eyre was a well-known family name in the community and the local hall North Lees is thought to have been the basis for the fictional Thornfield Hall. In fact the character St John Rivers may have been modelled on Henry himself. Charlotte is also thought to have used the name of the local George Inn landlord, a Mr Morton, as the name of the village in which her novel was set.
But the Bronte link is not the only curiosity at this church. Under a yew tree in the churchyard is the reputed grave of the most famous of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, Little John.
The outlaw is said to have died in a cottage on the eastern side of the church. In 1847 its 70-year-old occupant Jenny Shard remembered the story passed down by her 92-year-old father, who’d died 20 years prior.
She also claimed to remember the tomb being opened by Captain James Shuttleworth, who found a 32-inch thigh bone – which would seemingly confirm the legend that the ironically-named Little John was, in fact, more than seven foot tall.
But what does this have to do with swimming? Well perhaps the most peculiar feature of this Peak District village is tucked away at the other end of the village. For it is home to the Hathersage Swimming Pool, a 1930s lido where the pool water is kept at a balmy 28C.
The pool was opened in 1936 thanks to a generous donation by local businessman and philanthropist George Herbert Lawrence, a manufacturer of razor blades. In addition to the pool it included the band stand, tennis courts and playing field.
George was tragically killed while trying to help his workers during a German air raid on Sheffield on December 13, 1940. But his legacy remains much as it did a century ago. The veranda, or solarium as it was once called, and office block have been renovated but otherwise look the same as they always did.
Once a month the pool holds a Night Swim to music and it was this that led me to Hathersage. I stumbled across a mention of it on Facebook, thought it sounded interesting and suggested it to the Other Half, who surprised me by agreeing to it straight away. Within 10 minutes I’d bought tickets and that was our Friday night sorted.
Having had a lovely dinner at the highly-recommended Scotsman Pack Inn, we traipsed back across the village. It did feel a little unusual heading to a pool armed with our costumes and towels on a mild May night, with a cool breeze in the air. But off we went and met our friends, who came prepared with picnic basket and camping chairs.
We set up camp under the veranda and were pleasantly surprised that walking around in your bathing suit in about 13C wasn’t quite as chilly as we imagined. Then, along with dozens of others, we took the plunge.
Night swimming in the middle of the Peak District on a cold Spring night proved an enjoyable, albeit thoroughly bizarre, experience. Standing in the middle of the pool, at eye level it looked like everyone was on holiday in some exotic clime. Then looking up you realised that the lifeguard was sitting there in a winter jacket, with a blanket over her legs.
Philosopher George Santayana once said that: “England is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, anomalies, hobbies and humours.”
And in Hathersage that Friday night, the saying could not be more true.