They were back bathing in the Taff last month when the heatwave hit and the sight of them splashing in our river couldn’t fail to bring back memories for any old Cardiff codger.
Memories of – the Taff Swim. And of days when the summers were long and hot, when the best and biggest swimming pools in our town were the old Canal and the river running down from Llandaff Weir to Clarence Bridge.
But when those swimmers took once more to the water a couple of weeks ago they were warned, so predictably, of the dangers of swimming in the Taff.
Danger? No-one told the thousands of men and women from all over the country who came to Cardiff from 1924 to 1931 to swim down our watery road from the castle to Clarence Bridge. That was when there were 52 pits in the Rhondda, meaning so much coal dust swilling down that when you got home after diving off Penarth Road bridge your mother chucked you straight into the bath – after shaking you over a bucket to collect enough dust to bank the fire overnight.
The Welsh Amateur Swimming Association claimed it was “The Greatest Welsh Swimming Event of the Year, Sponsored and Organised by the Echo” and it was indeed a massive spree, with thousands lining the banks from Canton (Cardiff) Bridge right down to the docks. There were fears it might have ended when they built the new bridge in 1931 and, yes, it was the end of the river as racecourse.
But it was too good to lose, so it was moved to Roath Park lake and although it maybe lacked the magic of the river, it was still the famous Taff Swim and it still pulled in huge crowds. In fact, in 1932, moviegoers all over Britain watched it on Pathe News, the plum-toned commentator breathlessly telling them that “H L James of Weston-super-Mare and Miss C Broadley of Hammersmith win the famous Taff Swim.” Another case of Putting Cardiff on the Map.
In 1956 they had an aerobatics display to kick off the contest when 124 men and 56 women competed for the long-distance championship of Wales, “prizes donated by Western Mail Echo Ltd.” Those prizes were handed out by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, togged up in all their finery, chains glinting, a turnout telling us how seriously the city took the swim.
But during the Sixties the lake was judged too polluted to carry on and that really was the end. Hard to believe it was once a sort of Roath Riviera, the swimming pool across from the lighthouse packed on summer evenings, a kids’ paddling pool, as well, no-one able to resist the temptation to squeeze through the railings into deep water – hot water if the “parkie” caught you.
And now, for the first time, an exclusive tale of the Taff. After a mammoth session in the Baroness of Windsor in 1926 some Grangetown gamblers came up with an idea for a betting coup. They would “borrow” Billy the Seal from Victoria Park and enter him for the Swim. They reckoned that clad in his ankle-length striped cossie plus rubber swimming cap he looked not unlike a prominent Cardiff alderman who sported similar whiskers, so Billy would be entered in his name. They went back to the Baroness to celebrate their forthcoming coup and got carried away – waking up after the race, Billy still in his pool, his keeper wondering ever after how the hell he’d got into a striped bathing suit.
Well that’s what they used to tell you in Grangetown.
Anyway, what was once one of the most polluted waterways in the country is now, we’re told, as pure as the bottled water allegedly sucked up from springs beneath the Antarctic ice. So if it’s good enough for salmon it should be good enough for us, making me wonder why we can’t start the Taff Swim all over again – along with regattas in the Bay’s 500-acre freshwater lake as we did in the old dock’s basin, another area off limits to swimmers.
No swimming there, say the usual health ’n’ safety suspects, because a sudden downpour in the valleys “could wash debris off fields and down to the Bay.” No-one seemed to have thought of that when the basin and the Taff estuary were the scenes of some of our biggest summer extravaganzas.
These days we have boats carrying passengers along the route of that fabled swim, cruising along a river controlled by the Barrage. Couldn’t the Taff once more become our biggest and best swimming pool?
I wouldn’t bet on it – but wouldn’t it be luvverly?