Swim history project plans

NHLF logo, link to website
Logo with stylised river and pines, link to BFER website


The project to discover and celebrate Brecks swimming heritage, Tales from the River, is getting going! Volunteers were trained in 2021 and oral history interviewing and research is beginning in 2022. See Project Update.

Tales of the Riverbank Summer Club: Monday, 22 August 2022 – Sat 27 Aug 10:00-16:00

children splashing in river
Fun in the river at Thetford, early 1950s

The project is working with Ancient House to offer a week long summer club where young people can learn new skills and make new friends. Young people (11 years and over) will work with oral history, archival documents, images, film and artefacts (including stories gathered in the project so far) to create an exhibition and a short film on how the river has been used for fun in the past. The Summer Club is completely free and includes all refreshments. Advanced booking essential, https://norfolk-museums.arttickets.org.uk/ancient-house/2022-08-22-tales-of-the-riverbank-summer-club. More info on booking link page and Facebook event, https://www.facebook.com/events/1165073601014605/1165073604347938/

Oral History and story collecting

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

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.

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.

Project Updates

See also project updates on the BFER project pages.

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.

children playing in shallow water
Thetford swimming baths shallow side, about 1950, photo kindly donated by George Angus (second from left), photo ©BFER

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)
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