Swim history project plans & updates

Summary: The project to discover and celebrate Brecks swimming heritage, Tales from the River, trained volunteers in 2021, and oral history interviewing, research and other activities are continuing in 2022-24. See Project Updates.

Tales from the Riverbank Exhibition Following showings in 9 venues so far, the exhibition is due to tour more libraries and museums and other venues in the Brecks and beyond– look out for more dates here. So far planned: Mildenhall and Watton Museums and Swaffham and Dereham libraries later in 2024. Stories, memories and photos of swimming, fishing, boating, holidays and festivals in the rivers in Thetford and nearby over the last 120 years tell a fascinating and fun story in six panels. It was put together by young people from Ancient House Museum history clubs, as was the film that complements the exhibition: watch on YouTube.

River History Walks 2024:

11 September, Mildenhall, 13:30-15:30

5 October, Thetford pm (Pathmakers Festival, with Bush Adventures)

15 October, Brandon am (Pathmakers Festival)

On these short BFER/Festival walks we will immerse ourselves in the sights and sounds of the river its importance in the history of the town or village. We will hear stories about swimming, fishing and having fun in the rivers (gathered in this project), and see sites of trading, industrial and social history. Read about the autumn series of walks in Project Updates.

Oral History and story collecting

Project volunteers are talking to local people and gathering their memories of swimming, playing and enjoying the rivers in other ways.

We are looking for people who might like to tell us their stories and memories about swimming and other recreation or activities, or would like to send us information – Outdoor Swimming maps, info, photos or stories to share. You can read the Info Sheet about the Oral History part of the Tales from the River project, too.

Coming soon (2024): Storytelling

If you would like to sign up to get involved in the project – Contact me and say you would like to be involved and to get updates – and to hear about future events in this or other projects sign up for BFER updates and newsletter here.

The project is part of The Brecks Fen Edge & Rivers Landscape Partnership Scheme (BFER), supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It will train and involve volunteers in gathering history, stories and folklore about recreation in/on/by the Brecks rivers and other waters.

children in a river in summer
St Helen’s family swim

Summary of the project

Tales from the River will involve people in gathering and celebrating past and present stories and folklore about swimming and other recreation in, on or by the Breckland rivers and other waters.

The project is part of The Brecks Fen Edge & Rivers Landscape Partnership Scheme (BFER),  supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The project will provide training in archive research and oral history interviewing, and we hope that those trained will volunteer to do research and interviewing and will discover photographs and cine films. (Training is free, and those who volunteer in the project can claim travel expenses.)

We will share what we find with other projects and will present it in various ways, including exhibition, video, on the website, and to enrich the archives. Heritage information will inform the Healing Waters river survey and map, and will appear together with safety advice at key swimming spots.

More detail on the projects on this website and find documents about all the BFER projects on The Brecks Fen Edge & Rivers Landscape Partnership Scheme website, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Please contact me with any questions, or to sign up for updates. More on how to get involved on this website.

Top of page

Project Updates

Honington and Sapiston guided river history walk 16 May 2024, unfortunately one of the rainiest days of the spring! After being fully booked at 30 the number attending shrank to 7, with an additional three joining us for the coffee cake and chat and to look at the displays afterwards, which gave it a more intimate and cosy feel, and everyone valiantly enjoyed the lovely lush green landscape despite the almost constant rain. We did have some indoor stops in the two wonderful village churches, and started and finished in the marvellous village hall. We heard about the history of river recreation – rafting, swimming, paddling, horse swimming and more – and a little bit about life and work in the area. You can download the handout (PDF two pages), see some photos from the day and the route with some historical info. See also photos on the route on a much sunnier day, 2 May. when volunteers checked it out.

Thetford Rivers guided history walk on 11 April 2024 took place on a gloriously sunny day, with 24 participants including five children and young people. We heard about some of the history of recreation and industry by the rivers and immersed ourselves in the environment, and there were also activities to find and see things, to find a way through a maze and do bark rubbings. You can download the handout (PDF two pages), see some photos from the day, and see the route with some historical info. Many thanks to the volunteers that helped lead the walk and to our oral history interviewees and donors of photos and other material for providing stories, including some memories shared by those on the walk. We also were treated to a view of kayakers and swimmers in the mill pool, and saw lots of wildlife and flowers along our way.

Storytelling Workshop 190324. The Act Your Age group, who meet on Tuesdays at Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal, interpreted information on fluctuating meres and burnt mounds in words and actions. Were stones heated up to have warm baths or for foot warmers, and did the meres go down because witches pulled out the plugs or mere cats drank the water, or did they fill up so that the fairies could swim and be happy? We don’t know but much imagination and drama skills brought the possibilities to life. Some photos of the session led by Lynn Whitehead.

Lakenheath Waterways guided history walk on 14 March 2024 started off the spring series of BFER walks. We had 26 participants and it went very well, with mild and partly sunny spring weather. Participants including those living in the village and from further afield – learnt about the history of the waters in the area now and in the past and about some of the interesting history of the village, and they immersed themselves in the sounds of the environment. You can download the handout (PDF 2 pages), see some photos from the day, and see the route with some historical information. Many thanks to the volunteers that helped lead the walk, and to Lakenheath Heritage group for their wonderful collection of historical photos, memories and information.

Talk on the Tales from the River project at Bury St Edmunds Library, one of their Wednesday Talks series, in which I outlined the project, showed some of the images and recounted some of the stories we’ve been told so far, on Wed 28 Feb 2024 (to 40 people), after the exhibition had been there for the month. Both the talk and the exhibition had a lot of interest and positive feedback.

Talk to Thetford U3A 25 January 2024 (88 people), with photos and memories that have been told to the Tales from the River project, focussing especially those relating to Thetford.

The first of a series of three BFER autumn guided river history walks, Mildenhall 14 September, was a great success, with participants enjoying learning about the history of the river navigation and use for leisure, and some of the fascinating buildings and story of the town, including a visit to Mildenhall Museum by some, and immersing themselves in the sounds and senses of the environment. You can see some photos from the day, and the route with some historical information, and download the handout for the day (2pages PDF). See the top of the page for the next walks, all led by volunteers from this project.

Unfortunately, flooding in the town meant that the river history walk planned for Thetford 25 October had to be cancelled. We will be running this 11 April instead.

The third planned river history walk, Brandon 12 November, went very well. On a cold but dry day participants walked with volunteers along the riverside path, learning about staunches, navigation and boathouses, and hearing memories of fishing, boating and swimming. We also looked at historic photos of riverside inns and industries and talked about the other important industries of the town. We returned by the iconic Victoria Avenue, and heard about lantern lit promenades in 1887, June 2023 – and another due Christmas 2023. Download the handout for the walk (PDF 2 pages) and see photos of the walkers on Flickr. BFER volunteer Mary Farrell wrote about her experience of exploring Brandon’s riverside heritage on the practice walk.

Storytelling for youth groups. The first of these took place in October on 2 evening sessions of the Brandon 1st Scouts Beavers, with Lynn Whitehead, in which the young people learned storytelling techniques and retold some of the tales given to the project to their parents. Two sets of photos here, https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAZ9bi ; https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjB1oGi . We are in the process of contacting more groups to see if they’d like to do something similar – get in touch if you’re interested contact me.

People seen from behind looking at several large display panels with headings including Tales from the River bank, swimming, boating, fishing, river festivals
Exhibition panels cBFER

Tales from the Riverbank Exhibition now on library tour from March 2023.  New dates will appear at the top of this page as they are arranged. It tells the colourful story of river recreation in Thetford and around over the last century, and complements the video – see below. Curated by young historians at Ancient House Museum using oral history accounts, photos and historic and new material gathered by project volunteers, and also material from a detailed study of bathing and swimming in Thetford over several centuries. This thesis by Sarah Batstone, who moved to Thetford aged 2 in the early 1970s, includes research and stories gathered in the 1990s from older local residents. The project is very grateful to its author’s family for the donation. A copy will be available in Thetford Library and one will travel with the exhibition. Pop-up display panels designed by Kate Plant, printed by Rock Solid Graphics. See the Tales from the Riverbank Online Exhibition on this website.

audience watching film screen with image of river baths
Watching the film at Thetford Library

Launch of film 12 November 2022: Tales from the Riverbank: A Fun History of Thetford’s Rivers 1880s to 2000s. Over 50 people came to the first screening at Thetford Library, from under 10s to over 90 year olds – the young historians who created the film and donors of memories, images and historic material along with project volunteers, supporters, and local residents. Everyone enjoyed this entertaining tale of how the two rivers that run through Thetford have been used for swimming, fishing, boating and other activities over the last 120 years.

The film was so popular we showed it for a second time while attendees had refreshments, animated discussions and an opportunity to look at some display panels about history of river recreation in the Brecks. See more photos of the event, https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAf1ah.

You can see the film on the BFER YouTube channel (and also on the @OSBrecks channel)

young people working on animations
Tales from the Riverbank Club August 2022

Tales from the Riverbank Summer Club: 23-27 August 2022. The project worked with Ancient House and a filmmaker on a week long summer club where young people learned new skills. They worked with oral history extracts, archival documents, images and artefacts (including stories gathered in the project so far) to create a short film on how the river has been used for fun in the past. The Summer Club was free, including refreshments, and was held at Ancient House, Thetford Library, and outdoors along the riverbank. The week was great fun and very interesting, discovering new material and creating animations, film footage and content. Selected photos, Best, https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjA73pU, and 3 more sets (see album list).

young people looking at books outdoors
Tales from the Riverbank Club August 2022

Oral history interviewing underway

Project volunteers are beginning to talk to local people and gather their memories of swimming, playing and otherwise enjoying the rivers.

Our first interview was with Mary, interviewed by volunteer researcher Helaine, and is a delightful story of growing up at Oxburgh Hall and playing in the rivers around the village, catching fish and having lots of fun. You can listen to a 40 second extract.

Transcript:  “We didn’t actually swim.  We played.  We played in the ferry river.  We played in what we call the ‘second bridges’ which was down the Foulden road and we played in there because it was a sandy bank and it was clear and you could see the bottom and we paddled, we caught tiddlers and had lots and lots of fun.   And lots of the children used to.  There used to be a watermill there and where the watermill was, there was a (big) tree cut down and people used to actually jump off the tree trunk into this.  It’s a wonder they didn’t break their necks.   There was no health & safety by the riverside then.”  

 Do contact me if you’d like to tell your story, see Outdoor Swimming maps, info, photos or stories to share and the project Info Sheet.

people and displays in library
Tales from the River volunteers and visitors at Thetford Library drop in 3 May, photo ©BFER

Thetford Library & Tales from the River Drop in event, Tuesday 3 May Local people came and shared their photos and stories about earlier days in Thetford, about the river and how they played and swam in places like the Bridge Tavern, the swimming baths, Barnham common, and about fishing and messing about in belly tank boats or paddling in the vegetable-coloured and scented warm waters below the cannery. We had a display about the project and old photos of Thetford kindly shared by Ancient House Museum. Volunteers Imogen, Rosie and John, along with BFER staff Tom, Nick, Nicole, and library staff Kaleigh and others chatted to visitors and recorded some of their wonderful stories, photos and documents.

Extracts from some oral history interviews done at Thetford, and listen to 40 seconds of extracts from the interview with George Angus.

Transcripts: “My first memories are in the Bridge Tavern, and because we lived in Castle Street that was just up the road. My father was away, during the war, and my mother used to take me and my sister up there, swimming or paddling in the Bridge Tavern” [aged about 3-4 ] “… I loved it, always loved the water.…Where the bypass is now, that was a railway line, the Bury to Thetford line, and just past that the river was much deeper, and I can remember being down there and her trying to teach me to swim.” Barnham common “During the school holidays that’s where everybody went, whole families would take their picnics and spend the whole day up there.” Thetford bathing pool. “That was lovely. That was very deep in those days. There was the shallow end. 50 yards long, though I’m not certain of the length. Going upstream towards Bury St Edmunds it got deeper and deeper and deeper, and at the far end there was the three stage diving boards and a springboard. But the bottom was very muddy, and if you were the first one the water was lovely and clear, but if you had to follow that there was mud everywhere, but we just accepted that.” George Angus

Going to the bathing pool with the school. “That was in the summer, but that was still cold. Once you got in the water it was alright. You used to let someone else go in first to let you know what it was like.” And outside of school times “… on a Sunday afternoon especially, or when the weather was nice.… Because we used to go and listen to Top of the Pops on the radio on the other side of the river.” Adrian Bibby

two men talking next to a display stand
Locals chatting by the Tales from the River display at Oxborough

Monday 28 March, 3-6, Oxborough Village Hall Drop in session where visitors could enjoy the refreshments, look at historic documents & photos from the village and local area, and share memories of swimming, fishing, boating or playing in the rivers. Volunteers chatted to visitors and recorded some oral history interviews. See more photos and report of the event, and the display panels here.

old photo stanch and people
A stanch with swimmers and onlookers

Talk to Brandon and District Local History Society 6 April. I showed images collected in the project – most of which appear in the display panels, and talked about the project, what information we want to collect and how, the sort of places people used to (and still do) swim or fish or boat or enjoy the Brecks rivers and waters and how this often ties in with buildings and places connected with navigation and industry. We also looked at Brandon maps and discussed popular places in the area. You can download my talk (Word.doc, 4 pages). Several people had stories to tell. I’m happy to talk to similar meetings – do contact me.

traing room with people
At the oral history training

Training sessions completed

Tour of Norfolk Record Office, Monday 8 November, Norwich. Tour by Karen Gaffney, Norfolk Record Office including how to access the archives and a look at the areas behind the scenes including a fascinating talk by Nick Sellwood about conservation and preservation of important records, and a chance to look at some fascinating and beautiful photos, drawings, diaries, maps and other documents relevant to the project.

speaker and listeners
The Conservation room at Norfolk Record Office

Doing research and using the Suffolk Archives, Monday 1 November, Suffolk Record Office,  Bury St Edmunds. The trainer, Hannah from Suffolk Archives, gave an introduction to the archives and the sort of records and work they do, did a tour of the strongroom and reading rooms, and showed us some very interesting and relevant documents, maps and photos from the collection. There were plenty of opportunities to ask questions and search the catalogue, and some discussion on following up and doing research at the Suffolk Archives, online and elsewhere.

people maps books
At the research training November

Introduction to Oral History Collecting, Tuesday 7 September 2021, Brandon Engine House, Brandon Country Park, IP27 0SU.

The trainers, Mandy and Hannah from Suffolk Archives, gave an introduction to oral history, issues and legalities to consider, how to plan, prepare and conduct an interview, using the equipment and a chance to practice. We also discussed project planning and how to organise gathering stories and oral history recordings on swimming and other river recreation. More photos of the training.

Doing research and discovering the archives at Norfolk Record Office, Wednesday 7 July at  Santon Downham Community Centre. The trainer, Victoria from Norfolk Record Office, outlined how to access the archives and do your own research, and illustrated this with examples of relevant documents/maps/material from the collection. We followed the training with a discussion on how volunteers can take the project forward and how we can organise doing some research and gather materials and stories on swimming and other river recreation. (The training reported in the BFER Newsletter 3. See some more photos of the sessions)

training room with people
At the Research training 7 July

You might also be interested in the latest on the Healing Waters project: see Outdoor swimming practical project dates.

display panel with text and old photos
Display panel 1: Tales from the River (used at Conference March 2019)

See more display panels used in the project in 2021-2022

We also have a new all weather panel, created in 2022.

Logo with stylised river and pines, link to BFER website
The Brecks Fen Edge & Rivers Landscape Partnership Scheme
NHLF logo, link to website
The National Lottery Heritage Fund


swims and swim places, and related issues