Archive for the ‘Wild Swimming’ category

Having a Saint for an Uncle: The Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard (Haute-Savoie) and its Family

August 11th, 2015

The 'improvements' of the artist Comte René de Menthon in the 1880s seem almost too 'Disney', but he was determined to adapt an austere fortress for modern living

What is there not to like about the Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard? The craggy twelfth-century fortress (the name in Celtic means ‘rock bound’) of the mighty Menthon family, set on a platform high above Lake Annecy; three great stone-and-mortar towers with Sleeping Beauty turrets (added by the artist Comte René de Menthon in the 1880s), all jumbled around an inner courtyard (which, regrettably, was reduced in size by the same Comte René, albeit in the cause of adapting the castle for modern living); an ancient chapel (first mentioned in 1262); an austerely splendid library stuffed with rare pre-Revolutionary volumes – the Histoire des Sires de Salins and the Senatus Dolani, inherited from the Richardots of Dôle, caught my eye – old parchments with royal seals and incunabula; ubiquitous heraldry; a Grand Salon with stupendous views over the lake and a vast hooded fireplace, surmounted by one of the many inscriptions here of the family’s cri de guerre (‘Toujours Menthon, Partout Menthon’); fine family portraits and a gorgeous Tapisserie des Gobelins; a lady’s chamber sealed for warmth with a remarkably verdant set of Aubusson tapestries; the highly atmospheric Salle des Pèlerins, on the first floor of the tour du lac, still equipped with its great fifteenth-century oak dining table, where meals were prepared and consumed by all the members of the household, along with any pilgrims who happened to be passing this way; and, most satisfyingly, an eponymous family in occupation since at least 1150 (when they are first documented), though they may well have been in possession since the ninth or tenth century; a family which credibly claims St Bernard of Menthon, the patron saint of mountaineers, as a member, and the castle as his birthplace in 1008; one that was as powerful as it was prestigious, its dependencies reputedly stretching in the thirteenth century from the shores of the lake at Talloires to the very gates of Geneva; one to which, moreover, I am connected in various ways, having a double descent (through Viry, Montjoye, Klinglin and Faletans) from a sixteenth-century Hélène de Menthon (who assuredly would have dined at that great table in the Salle des Pèlerins), and even closer cousinship through the barons de Klinglin, a line that diverged in the eighteenth century. This, for me, is castle heaven!

The urbane Comte Bernard de Menthon had already softened the lakeside aspect of the castle, installing in 1740 the salle à manger and Grand Salon

‘Uncle’ Bernard

It was the ambition of the young Bernard de Menthon to become a monk, but his parents had other plans, pledging him in marriage to a lady of the house of Miolans. On the eve of their wedding, he had slipped out of the window of his chamber and fled to Aosta, where he took orders.

As Archdeacon of Aosta, he later founded the hospices of the Grand-Saint-Bernard as refuges for Alpine travellers, who were the constant prey of marauding Saracens and brigands. St Bernard’s hospices revolutionised Alpine travel, allowing the development of commercial and pilgrim routes between France and Italy. He died in 1081 but has given his name to the enormous dog, first bred by the fifteenth-century ‘canons of Saint-Bernard’, that, with a barrel of cheering liquor tied to its neck, used to rescue travellers buried in avalanches.

Lake Annecy from above seemed irresistible. It was only a short drive to Balmettes where we immersed ourselves in its waters - said to be the cleanest of any lake in Europe.

A Summer of Wild Swimming at the Parliament Hill Fields Lido, and the Anglo-Saxon Penchant for Tattoos

August 10th, 2014

At Parliament Hill Fields Lido: definitely not 'inked'

There has been excellent swimming at the Parliament Hill Fields Lido this summer, especially at the ‘adults only’ sessions in the evening. The 60 x 27 metre uncovered, unheated pool is lined with gleaming metal, so immersion in it is like being cleansed in some giant sink. Roger Deakin (Waterlog, p.306) called it ‘one of the few really great swimming pools left’.

Harold Godwinson: almost certainly 'inked'

This is a popular facility, where it is possible to observe a cross-section of London society in the raw. Users come in all shapes and sizes, with or without tattoos, which are now said to adorn one in every four British adults. The proportion at the Lido seems to be even higher, and it has been interesting to observe them on some quite elderly, and apparently respectable bodies, as well as very youthful ones. My companion and I regard any form of ‘inking’ is a desecration, but I have pointed out to her that they have been in fashion in other periods of our history. The chronicler William of Malmesbury says of the English at the time of the Norman Conquest that they ‘wore short garments, reaching to the mid-knee; they had their hair cropped, their beards shaven, their arms laden with golden bracelets, their skin adorned with punctured designs; they were accustomed to eat till they were sick …’ For William, tattoos were firmly to be associated with the decadence of the age.

I was disappointed when, many years ago, I swam at the original Lido, off Venice, as the beach was crowded and somewhat featureless, and the lagoon is everywhere very shallow. It would have been a wholly unromantic experience, but I had just been reading Mann’s Death in Venice, so felt it to be worth the effort.

Queen Victoria’s Private Beach at Osborne, and the Pink-Eyed Cadets of the Royal Naval College

August 5th, 2013

I have been to Queen Victoria’s private beach at Osborne, on the Isle of Wight, to swim. English Heritage, who manage the estate, have restored the alcove or exedra, colourfully decorated with blue and pink tiles, which she favoured for letter-writing and sketching. The Queen’s bathing machine, also restored – after lengthy service as a chicken coop – is displayed there, a very superior construction akin to a small house. Deck chairs may be hired, there are regular Punch and Judy shows, brass bands occasionally perform and there is a pleasant café with changing facilities.

Queen Victoria's bathing machine at Osborne. It would be lowered into the sea on metal tracks.

It was here that Queen Victoria bathed for the first time, when she was in her late twenties. In her journal for 30 July 1847 she writes: ‘Drove to the beach with my maids and went in the bathing machine, where I undressed and bathed in the sea (for the 1st time in my life)… I thought it delightful till I put my head under water, when I thought I should be stifled.’

In fact, the sea here is so shallow, except at the highest tides, that one could almost walk to Portsmouth. As a swimming place it is ideal for young children, as there is little danger of their getting out of their depth. Queen Victoria’s own children played happily on the beach for hours and had swimming lessons from Prince Albert, a firm believer in the health-giving properties of sea-bathing. Although the Solent is a narrow strait, the view from here reminded him of the Bay of Naples.

The private beach at Osborne

I wondered whether my grandfather, a cadet at Osborne during the First World War, would also have swum here. In 1902, Edward VII presented Osborne to the nation. A year later, a Royal Naval College was opened in the former stables, the main house being put to use as a convalescent home. The accommodation was damp and spartan, a suitable training ground for the nation’s martial élite. (These included Prince George, later the Duke of Kent, who was my grandfather’s servant.) The College was to become notorious for its epidemics of ‘pink eye’, a minor but unpleasant infection, treatable with drops, that was said to have been left behind by the horses.

Disappointingly, I discover that there were no opportunities to swim, nor indeed swimming lessons, in my grandfather’s day. There was no pool, and the Admiralty had banned swimming in the Solent, on the improbable grounds that it was unsafe! Swimming lessons were deferred until the boys arrived at Dartmouth, which had a pool, though I suspect my grandfather would already have been a competent swimmer.

View of Osborne House from the Valley Path down to the beach

One of the delights of visiting this beach is the path from the main house that leads to it. A near contemporary of my grandfather writes: ‘the grounds which formed the park of Queen Victoria’s favourite country home … were quite lovely. Though we were not allowed to approach the house, on half holidays and Sunday afternoons the paths through the woods and down to the sea were open to us, and in the infrequent intervals between organised games I used to love to wander there. But our lives were so strictly circumscribed and controlled that these opportunities were rare.’

Osborne House itself was off limits. Another former cadet recalled: ‘Funnily enough, while I was at Osborne I never saw Osborne House. I never caught sight of it at all and we were quite close by, just through a few trees and shrubs and things.’

Personally I am much taken with Prince Albert’s Italianate fantasy, which appears at its best under a blue sky. I feel sad for Queen Victoria, fussing about with her maids and bathing machine and voluminous costume, failing to enjoy the sense of liberation that comes with even a moderately wild swim. She should have been as untramelled as the voluptuous statuary that surrounded her at Osborne.

(See Michael Partridge, The Royal Naval College, Osborne: A History, 1903-21, Stroud 1999, pp.29, 30, 116-17, 105-6, and

The Isle of Wight’s Wildest Swimming: Whale Chine, Vauville in Normandy and the Wavells of Atherfield Farm

August 10th, 2012

Whale Chine is a spectacular ravine in the cliffs on the south side of the Isle of Wight. Other examples of such clefts – the word ‘chine’ is peculiar to the dialect of Dorset and the Island – are the better known Blackgang and Shanklin Chines.

Whale Chine is reached from a car park on the Military Road, which is notable for its grand vistas. Some of the greatest wild swimming of my boyhood and youth was to be had there. To descend to the beach, by means of a steep, rickety wooden staircase and narrow path, was an adventure in itself, for the chine is 140 feet deep.

Usually weighed down by a picnic basket, one was overpowered by the grandeur and timelessness of one’s surroundings. The cliffs here abound with the fossilised remains of prehistoric oysters, ammonites and lobsters. The stony beach is steeply shelved, so swimmers at high tide are soon out of their depth. The swell is considerable. So remote and challenging an environment was appealing to naturists, whose presence occasioned much sniggering among us youngsters – all those corpulent bank managers – though swimming naked is, of course, the wildest swimming of all, and they added to the exoticism of the place.

Since 2005, the steps having fallen into disrepair, the beach at Whale Chine has been completely inaccessible from the landward side. It seems the only way of getting there is by sea. The picture at the top was taken the other day from the head of the wooden staircase and evokes many memories.

Whale Chine appears not to have been named for the marine mammal, as I always supposed, but for the Wavell family of nearby Atherfield Manor, who farmed the land up to the edge of the chine. The family left their mark on the place during less than a century of occupation. They are said to have bought the estate in 1557 (from Sir Thomas Trenchard) and to have relinquished it in 1636 (A.D. Mills, The Place-names of the Isle of Wight). The photograph on the left is a distant view of the manor-house, less than half a mile inland – a solid, L-shaped building of stone. From a clearer picture in C.W.R. Winter, The Manor Houses of the Isle of Wight (Wimborne, 1987, p.186), I deduce that it also dates from the time of the Wavells.

These Wavells are a very old Island family. They are recorded there since 1300, when a Roger Wavill witnessed a charter at Afton, near Freshwater. A century later, Adam Wavill was witness to a grant of land at the same place. Their farming descendants had no airs about them and are listed in 1606 among the yeomen of the Island.

Thomas Wavell, who sold Atherfield in 1636, had settled at Limerston, elsewhere in the parish of Brighstone. He served during the Civil War as a major in the Royalist army, but another Wavell was for Parliament, and sat on the ‘Committee of Safety’ that it imposed on the Island. The leading Royalist there, Sir John Oglander, was to deplore the arbitrary government of ‘Ringwood of Newport, the pedlar, Maynard the apothecary, Matthews the baker, Wavell and Legge, farmers’, who ‘overruled Deputy Lieutenants and Justices of the Peace’. He felt this to be contrary to the natural order of things.

Little did Sir John know that the despised Farmer Wavell was assuredly the male-line descendant of a knightly Norman immigrant from the time of the Conquest, which was the proudest boast of his own family (C. Aspinall-Oglander, Nunwell Symphony (London, 1945), pp.11-12, 40, 104). Sir John’s descent was from the lord of Orglandes, near Valognes; Wavell’s was, almost certainly, from the lord of Vauville, also on the Cherbourg peninsula. In the late eleventh century, William de Vauville or ‘Wavilla’ is mentioned in charters in both Normandy and England. Subsequent generations took root in Sussex, Bedfordshire, Somerset and, it seems, the Isle of Wight. From Whale Chine they would unwittingly have looked across the Channel towards their ancestral home, forgetful of their origins and of their former knightly rank, even more than the Durbeyfields of Hardy’s novel.

Major Thomas Wavell’s son Richard (1633-1705), sometime of Egham and London, was a celebrated nonconformist pastor, and great-grandfather of Dr William Wavell of Barnstable, after whom the element ‘wavellite’ is named. Three generations of William’s descendants were all educated at Winchester College and became soldiers, the last being Field Marshal Archibald, First Earl Wavell of Cyrenaica (pictured left), the wartime Viceroy of India. (L.G. Pine, They Came with the Conqueror (London, 1966), pp.46-8; G.E. Wavell, ed. L.G. Pine, The House of Wavell (MS in British Museum); Burke’s Peerage 1949.)

Lord Wavell’s son, the second earl, a Major in the Black Watch, was killed leading a patrol against the Mau-Mau, the last of his line. However, branches of this remarkable and illustrious family continue to flourish on the Island. I note that there are nine Wavells listed in the current Isle of Wight telephone directory.

When Adam Put on Breeches: Shelley, Byron and Jane Austen as Swimmers, and the Invention of the Swimsuit

December 5th, 2011

According to my fellow blogger, the historical novelist Catherine Delors, eighteenth-century Parisians liked to bathe naked in the Seine, notwithstanding the ‘horrendous pollution’ of the river. Apparently this popular summer pastime was banned after the Revolution, for both men and women. So much for ‘liberté’!

Parisian swimmers reluctantly took to wearing costumes. Catherine reproduces a fascinating print (above) of c.1810-15, from a series called Caricatures parisiennes, in which those of the men are exactly like modern bathing shorts. The women appear to be covered to the knee, apart from their arms, and are wearing caps. For both sexes there is a relatively high exposure of naked flesh, but the prudes of the later nineteenth century would see to that!

Likewise in Britain, the few men and women who had the leisure and inclination to bathe had traditionally done so in the nude, but this was increasingly frowned on. Men and women were still swimming naked together off Weston-super-Mare in the early 1870s, much to the delight of the diarist Francis Kilvert. However, the sexes were increasingly being segregated under local by-laws, as at Shanklin, which Kilvert visited two years later. At such stuffy resorts, nudity was strictly forbidden.

Followers of Catherine’s blog have wondered what Byron would have worn for his epic crossing of the Hellespont that took place at exactly the time of the print (3 May 1810). The poet Shelley, who was a non-swimmer but loved to immerse himself in homage to classical models, always did so naked, ‘just as if he were Adam in Paradise before his fall’. Surprisingly, his future wife, Mary Godwin, strongly disapproved. When, on their way through France, Shelley insisted on stopping to bathe in a stream, she firmly declined to join him, declaring that it would be ‘most indecent’. In Italy, where men, women and children all bathed happily together in the nude, Mary, again, steadfastly refused to take part. To do so, she said, would be ‘improper’. Mary may thus have represented changing attitudes, the trend towards Victorian prudery, notwithstanding that she had been unashamed to elope, at seventeen, with a married man. It is equally possible that she suffered from acute self-consciousness in respect of her own body – unlike her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, whose willingness to bathe naked can only have made her more interesting to the poet.

As for the club-footed Byron, neither his post-swim letter to Henry Drury nor his lines Written After Swimming From Sestos to Abydos includes any reference to his attire. However, Charles Sprawson states in Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero (London, 1992), pp.103-4, that Byron ‘always wore trousers to conceal his disfigurement. Only in swimming could he experience complete freedom of movement.’ I do not know on what evidence he bases this assertion, nor whether the poet’s companion, Lieutenant Ekenhead, discarded his drawers for the occasion.

It would be even more interesting to know whether Jane Austen wore anything when bathing off Lyme in 1804: as she writes to her sister, Cassandra, on 14 September – surprisingly late in the year for sea-bathing – ‘The Batheing was so delightful this morning & Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long …’ (The Letters of Jane Austen, ed. Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford, 1996), p.95).

Read Catherine Delors’s article at

Grateful acknowledgement is made to Susan Holloway Scott who examines the print at

Constantine IX Monomachos, Zoe Porphyrogennete and Maria Skleraina: An Imperial Ménage à Trois.

October 31st, 2011

The Byzantines frowned on second marriages. They were permissible only when the first marriage had been childless. Third marriages were contrary to both ecclesiastical and Roman law, and to marry a fourth time was, according to the Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos, ‘a bestial act only worthy of lower animals’ (Judith Herrin, Byzantium (London, 2007), p.187).

In the imperial family itself, notable transgressors were the Emperor Leo VI (four times married) and his great-great-granddaughter, the Empress Zoe Porphyrogennete (three times married). Although Zoe and her younger sister, Theodora, were the sole heiresses to the Macedonian dynasty, they were considered, as women, to be unfit to rule alone. It was therefore incumbent on Zoe to marry – and marry again. She otherwise risked being deposed.

Zoe’s third husband was the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, himself the survivor of two previous marriages. When her second husband, Michael IV, died in 1041, Zoe considered, and rejected, two other possible candidates. Although she had not set eyes on Constantine for seven years, he had been her great favourite in the past, so much so that a jealous Michael had had him banished (on fabricated charges of treason) to the island of Mytilene (Lesbos), where he had languished ever since.

Constantine was handsome, effortlessly charming and genuinely likeable. In his youth he had been a champion pentathlete. He was the last heir to a prominent ‘civilian’ family (most of whose known members had pursued judicial careers) and both his previous marriages had been illustrious. On the first occasion, he had become ‘son-in-law to the outstanding member of court society’ (regrettably unnamed by the chronicler, Psellos). Then, as a childless widower, he had been permitted to re-marry (in or before 1025), to the only child of the magistros Basil Skleros. The bride’s mother, Pulcheria Argyropoulaina, was sister to Romanos Argyropoulos, who had subsequently become Zoe’s first husband and emperor as Romanos III. It had been Romanos’s particular wish that Constantine should be ‘grafted to the rich fertile olive’ of his family, though he had a low opinion of his nephew-in-law’s abilities, and had never trusted him to do any serious work (Psellos, Chronographia, VI, 15-21, trans. Sewter, pp.162-5; J.-C. Cheynet, Pouvoir et contestations à Byzance (Paris, 1996), pp.192-3, 269).

At the time of his banishment in 1035, Constantine had recently been widowed for the second time. There was no hope of his remarrying. He had, however, fallen madly in love with his late wife’s niece, Maria Skleraina, a young widow herself, who had been taken into their household. The normally discreet Maria had been inveigled into a ‘highly improper association’ and had elected to share Constantine’s exile on Mytilene (which was considered a cruel fate indeed for a Constantinopolitan). On their way out, some monks of the neighbouring island of Chios had prophesied Constantine’s eventual return to the capital, not in disgrace but as emperor (Cheynet, pp.46, 56-70). It had given Maria hope that they would one day be able to marry. For an emperor, surely anything was possible.


Constantine was recalled in the spring of 1042 and returned to Constantinople in triumph. His wedding to Zoe took place on 11 June. The Patriarch, Alexios, made what are tactfully called ‘concessions to expediency – or shall we say that he bowed to the will of God in the whole affair?’ Constantine was about 42 years old. Zoe, at 69, was old enough to be his mother. There seems, at first, to have been a physical element to the marriage, but she soon tired of that, preferring to pursue the real passion of her later years, which was the running of her own private perfume factory in the Palace.

Maria, waiting anxiously on Mytilene, was sent word that an indulgent Zoe had consented to her return (Psellos, VI, 54, p.182). Constantine set her up in a small house near the Palace. If multiple marriages were frowned upon, it was yet more shocking to keep a mistress. Romanos III is said, by doing so, to have shown ‘little respect for the accepted standards of morality’ (Psellos, III, 17, p.75). Affronts to the dignity of the purple-born Zoe and Theodora were also liable to enrage the populace, who referred to them as ‘our mums’.

Deeply ashamed of himself and terrified of a scandal, Constantine took pains to conceal his affair. He commissioned extensions to Maria’s house and, on the pretext of overseeing the work, was able to pay her regular visits. Whilst the members of his entourage were distracted by banquets in the garden, he would disappear inside. They knew exactly what was going on, but became used to their regular feasts and seemed happy for them to continue. The Emperor, encouraged and emboldened, ceased after a while to make any secret of the affair.

It remained for him to come to some sort of arrangement with Zoe, who proved remarkably compliant. The Empress not only agreed to have Maria move into the Palace itself, but was also willing to sign a ‘treaty of friendship’ between the three of them. The entire Senate was summoned to witness the contract. They were astonished that Zoe, far from being humiliated and distressed, actually seemed to be quite pleased with the arrangement, by which Maria was even to be addressed officially by a specially created imperial title, that of sebaste. (On Maria’s title, see Nicolas Oikonomides, ‘St George of Mangana, Maria Skleraina, and the “Malyj Sion” of Novgorod’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 34/4 (1980-1), pp.239-46.)

According to Psellos, young Maria was not a remarkable beauty, but had a wonderfully charming and unaffected manner. It was a delight to hear her speak. She was also a good listener, and acutely sensitive to the feelings of those around her. Psellos, then an imperial secretary of similar age, found it impossible not to like her (Psellos, VI, 58-65, pp.183-7).

A large crowd gathered to watch Maria on her first public outing, when she processed with the other members of the imperial family to the Theatre. As she was passing, Maria saw a bystander turn to his companion and, in a stage whisper, mutter two well known words from Homer – ‘ου ηεμεσις …’ A cultured Byzantine quoted Homer as readily as a cultured Englishman quotes Shakespeare. He would also have been educated, and – at least in formal circumstances – would probably have conversed in classical Greek (the equivalent of a modern Englishman speaking the language of Chaucer). Anyone with an education would thus have recognised the quotation and understood its significance. It is the passage where Priam’s counsellors, rationalising the sufferings of the Greeks and Trojans for the sake of Helen, say that men have understandably been driven to it by her unearthly beauty.

When the formal ceremony was over, Maria approached the man and, imitating his tone exactly, recited the quotation in full:

ου νεμεσις Τρωας και ευκνημιδας Αχαιους

τοιήδ’ αμφι γυναικι πολυν χρονον αλγεα πασχειν.

αινως αθανατησι θεης εις ωπα εοικεν.

‘Small blame that Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans should for such a woman long time suffer woes; wondrously like is she to the immortal goddesses to look upon’ (Iliad, III, ll.156-8, trans. A. Murray, Loeb edition, I, p.129. I have, perforce, omitted the iota subscripts, breathing marks and other diacritics, too great a challenge for my computer).

It was a graceful compliment indeed, for which the flatterer was richly rewarded.

Maria Skleraina died before the age of thirty, suddenly, of a bronchial disease – for she was severely asthmatic – in 1044 or 5. Constantine was heart-broken. He had her buried in a sumptuous tomb at the monastery of St George-in-Mangana, under what is now the Topkapi Palace, which he had founded and granted to her – a further impropriety – so that its revenues would assure her of financial independence. Psellos was commissioned to deliver the oration (in iambic verse), in which he referred again to the charms of her conversation: he says that she was ‘truly an Orpheus and a Siren in words, sending unto all her beautiful song’ (Panagiotis A. Agapilos, ‘Public and Private Death in Psellos: Maria Skleraina and Styliana Psellaina’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 101ii (2008), pp.555-607). Apparently he was sincere.

The reign of Constantine IX Monomachos was an unmitigated disaster for the Empire. He neglected the affairs of state, concentrating instead on worldly pleasures. It amused him to construct a beautiful park and to place in the middle of it a deep pond, the sides of which were level with the surrounding lawn. He would watch as unsuspecting visitors, strolling through the park, suddenly found themselves up to their necks in water. At least the water was warm, and Constantine himself liked to bathe in it several times a day, even, apparently, in winter. It is most unusual to hear of a recreational swimmer in the Middle Ages. One day he caught a chill while emerging from the pool and it was the death of him. He was buried in January 1055, not with Zoe, who had pre-deceased him, but beside his beloved Maria at St George-in-Mangana. Perhaps they had enjoyed swimming together, all those years ago, off the Lesbian shore.

It is stated in the Russian Primary Chronicle that Vsevelod I, Grand Prince of Kiev, was married by 1053 to ‘a Greek princess’. Their eldest child, born in that year, was the future Vladimir I, surnamed ‘Monomakh’, who is assumed, therefore, to have been a relative, if not the grandson, of Constantine IX. A further suggestion is that the mother of the unfortunate ‘princess’ was Maria Skleraina. The evidence in the matter is inconclusive, but the bride sent to Russia appears also to have been called Maria (for the seal has been discovered there of the ‘all-high-born Maria Monomacha’), and Byzantine children were never named after their parents. In any case, Psellos would surely have mentioned it if there had been a child. Moreover, although he describes Constantine as the last of his line, the Emperor certainly had a first cousin, Theodosios Monomachos, who survived him and indeed aspired to the throne after his death (Cheynet, p.67); Vsevelod’s bride could have been the sister, daughter or niece of this Theodosios. (For an assessment of all the evidence, see Rupert Willoughby, ‘The Golden Line’, Genealogists’ Magazine, XXIII (March and June 1991), pp.321-7, 369-72.)

Constantine has at least left us his mosaic portrait (above), in the last bay of the south gallery of Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral church of Constantinople. Zoe was already depicted there, she and her previous husband, Michael, presenting gifts to the figure of Christ. On marrying Constantine she had all three heads renewed, ensuring that her own showed her in the most youthful, flattering light. Constantine’s interpolated head seems more realistic, with his handsome features and the fresh, ruddy complexion to which Psellos refers.

Constantine in gratitude to the Chian monks also founded the Nea Mone (‘New Monastery’) on the island (pictured left). It is now deserted, but I remember on a visit in October 1991 seeing a small psalter or prayer-book that is supposed to have belonged to him. Moreover, there are through Vladimir Monomakh – whose many descendants include Edward II’s queen Isabella of France – countless people in the West who can, with some confidence, claim Constantine IX Monomachos as a kinsman – if not as a direct ancestor.

Colin Palmer: English Channel Relay Swimmer

March 29th, 2011

Guest-blogger Colin Palmer’s blasé account of his Channel-swim preparations disguises the fact that he is a man of steel and one of the wild swimming élite – none of which could be guessed from his amiable appearance and manner. Whatever exotic location I think of to swim, I find that he has preceded me, though not if there is any risk of an ‘instant ice-cream headache’. Colin tells me that cross-Channel swimming is firmly discouraged by the French authorities, and exhausted swimmers are liable to arrest when they step ashore. Not the sort of man to be put off by foreign pettifoggery, Colin is undaunted and valiantly supporting a worthy cause.

From Soho down to Brighton I must have swum them all.

I did not realise that signing up for an English Channel Relay swim would quite take over my life in such a major way.  I haven’t quite swum in every pool, lido, river and lake between the aforementioned Soho and Brighton but it is beginning to seem like it.  Although Tadley is my default pool where I often talk swimming to Rupert, every trip away from Berkshire means scouring the internet looking for new challenges, places and people to swim with.

I am undertaking the challenge with Aspire, the Charity that works with people with spinal chord injuries, and so I have a ready body of team members (Aspire has five teams of six people doing the Channel this year) to swim with. So far our location of choice has been London Fields Lido, a hidden jewel deep in the heart of Hackney.  The fact that the lido is heated and open all year is its great appeal, but the after-swim coffee and chat at the Hoxton Beach Cafe – you will detect the irony if you have spent any time in East London – are well worth the trip into London.

The Soho link is my solitary training trip to the Oasis pool in Endell Street,Central London, more Covent Garden really but close enough to use Pete Townsend’s lyrics, and Brighton will be our weekend’s cold water acclimatisation in the sea in early May.

I have already managed some early cold water acclimatisation when joining the massed ranks of the South Wales section of the Outdoor Swimming Society (three hardy souls) last Sunday (27th March) at Caswell Bay on the Gower peninsula.  Although the calves froze on impact with the sea, after a while it became fairly comfortable. Front crawl was impossible however due to the face freezing on contact with the water, creating an instant ice cream headache.  Feeling good I saw off a couple of the experienced hands and managed a creditable 25 minutes immersion.  It was not until out of the sea and the onset of uncontrollable convulsive shivering whilst changing that I realised the wisdom of experience, as the old hands were able to chat and drink coffee in the beach side cafe whilst I shook quietly in the corner. A thirty minute drive with the heater on full blast did the trick and thawed me out before Sunday lunch and had me looking at the calendar for the next chance of a weekend swim in Wales.

This weekend I am aiming to take my first dip in the Thames,  a 1/2 mile section in Goring, one of the many stretches I hope to do in the following months (I am sure David Walliams must have overheard my plans).  Next week I am in Cluj, Rumania, and so I am working out how I can access the University’s 50-metre pool.  What is Rumanian for ‘must I wear a swim hat?’. I will be in Cologne over Easter so I have to check the temperature of the Liblar See (an old quarry) and whether or not the owner of the campsite will let me swim in her lake. She looks at me very strangely when I turn up in the middle of summer and  and so my appearance in April will lead to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Unfortunately my limited German, ‘ein Bier und ein Käsebrötchen mit Zwiebeln’, is of little help at such times. Later in the Summer I will have the joy of two weekends’ swimming in Dover Docks, with real Channel swimmers, before the big day in July – August.

As you can see I am looking for tips for interesting places to swim and people to swim with so if you fancy a dip, or maybe just a walk along the towpath when I am doing a section of the Thames, drop me an email. I am more than willing to share the fun.

If you are interested in helping Aspire then you can donate through my website

Adam’s Wild Swim to Holy Island

November 23rd, 2010

Adam Rattray, the daring adventurer and wild swimmer, resolved, with two companions, to match Robson Green’s recent achievement in swimming the icy waters between the Northumbrian mainland and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

Both men chose to disregard the conventional means of access to the island – the causeway of which Sir Walter Scott writes, where

‘Twice a day the waves efface

Of staves and sandalled feet the trace’

– but Green is a tough Northumbrian and Adam half a Viking, descended, no doubt, from some of the fierce marauders who sacked Lindisfarne Priory in 793 and again in 875. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the earlier sack was presaged by ‘whirlwinds, lightning storms and fiery dragons seen in the sky’. The seas were hardly enticing for Adam’s visit – in September 2010 – but at least the dragons stayed away. Here is his typically modest account of the feat:

‘It was a little rough. Force 5-7 winds do horrible things to the North Sea so we changed the time and angle of the crossing. Dave (one of our party) drove four hours on the morning despite a 3 a.m. text from me that told him there was no chance that we would be able to swim (the wind was howling, and the coastguard irritated). When we finally started swimming it was actually not too difficult – we had seals to accompany us – but I had foolishly smeared vaseline over my hands and face; this then got onto my goggles so I swam in a greasy mist with little idea where I was going. Reaching the shore line was a relief and we raised over £600 for charity.

Reclaiming our Rivers: Swimming in the Thames and Medway

October 20th, 2010


Swim at Pangbourne Meadow, 11 July 2010

Stanley Spencer’s 1935 oil on canvas, ‘Sunbathers at Odney’, was inspired by his boyhood swims, in the early 1900s, at Odney Weir, Cookham. Improbable as it now seems, Spencer and other village boys  used to join the ‘city gents’, about to board their morning train to London, for early-morning dips.

Spencer, who was to speak of Cookham as ‘a village in Heaven’, captured his memories of those days in his series depicting the Baptism of Christ. He wrote: ‘we all go down to Odney Weir for a bathe and a swim … I feel fresh awake and alive; that is the time for visitations. We swim and look at the bank over the rushes, I swim in the path of sunlight, I go home to breakfast thinking as I go of the beautiful wholeness of the day’.

Spencer perfectly encapsulates the pleasures of river-swimming. It is a tonic that should certainly be recommended to today’s stressed commuters. Spencer has them lounging about and stretching, all naked and uninhibited, like the dons of old at Parson’s Pleasure. Presumably the real-life commuters, being out of the sight of shockable females, disregarded the late-Victorian convention of wearing drawers, which they may have felt only applied at the seaside. It is a wonderful, innocent scene.

Our rivers today are a neglected playground. Why are people so reluctant? Concerns about pollution no longer apply. There is a horrible condition called Weil’s Disease, spread by the urine of rats and other animals: I am advised by a microbiologist friend, who lets me swim in the Thames from her own private slip at Burcot, that the risk of contracting it is greatest in stagnant waters, where it is unlikely that one would wish to swim. The chances of being trapped by hidden undergrowth are equally slim, as long as one is sensible. The Thames this summer has been deliciously warm, fresh and clean, with a wonderful peaty smell – fun for all the family, though passers-by have often intimated that nothing would induce them to join us. The main hazard is from passing boats, though they are usually extremely careful; and the atmosphere is unfailingly jolly, for those on board share in the secret and all oarsmen seem unconsciously to assume parts from Three Men in a Boat.

This year I have added the Medway to my repertoire of swimmable rivers – a deep, warm, hidden delight, where friends and family and I swam early one morning, before cooking an enormous breakfast on a stove on the riverbank. Such are indeed times, as Spencer knew, for heavenly visitations.

To see an image of ‘Sunbathers at Odney’, visit

For good swimming locations, visit

Swinburne’s Bonchurch

September 7th, 2010

The poet Swinburne was born in London and considered himself a Northumbrian, but he spent most of his youth at East Dene, his parents’ house at Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight. A strange little runt of a man, Swinburne had picked up his algolagnia (‘pain lust’) at Eton, along with his fluency in the classics, though his fondest memories of school were of ‘swimming lessons and play in the Thames’. Etonians of the time practically invented modern recreational swimming, though Swinburne took a more masochistic pleasure in immersion. This was evident at an early age, when his no-nonsense father (an Admiral) used to toss him into the waves in Monk’s Bay below the house. Swinburne said that he would emerge ‘shouting and laughing with delight’.

Swinburne never visited Greece, though, like Keats, he wrote as if he were a Greek. The landscape around Bonchurch is, in fact, England’s nearest equivalent to the beauties of Greece (see the view below), and Swinburne seems instinctively to have known this, specifically comparing the two places in ‘Triumph of Gloriana’. Bonchurch is close to my own boyhood home, and I often walk there, approaching it from the densely-wooded Landslip – a place where elves might easily lurk under giant rocks and fallen boughs, or Pan and Bacchus play hide and seek with the Maenad and the Bassarid:

‘The laughing leaves of the trees divide,

And screen from seeing and leave in sight

The god pursuing, the maiden hid.’

Having paid my respects at the boundary of East Dene (now some sort of residential educational centre), I descend the steep path to the beach. The waters of Monk’s Bay are more placid than they used to be, owing to the construction (within the last ten years) of some major sea defences. Swinburne would have been displeased. He liked his sea to be rough, like his lovers. Turning northwards along the coast, I soon reach a deserted beach where, truly, I have never seen another soul. Perhaps it is just too much effort for people to clamber with their paraphernalia over tricky rocks, though easy for me, familiar with these shores, fired up by my walk and unencumbered. At least once a year, I strip off and swim.

Swinburne would presumably have taken this route to Culver Cliff, the dangerous, sheer, white face of which he famously scaled at the age of 17, to prove his manhood. He wrote that he had had to break off the attempt (which verged on the suicidal) to gather his courage, by bathing in the sea at the foot of the cliff. He must have liked my deserted beach, too. The risk of being pounded by the waves, and scraped on rocks which are just below the surface at low tide, would have had him squealing with delight.

East Dene, Culver Cliff and the beach below the Landslip, Bonchurch