The earliest written reference to bathing in Ixworth comes in newspaper reports of August 1892. William Nichols had committed suicide in the river at the Abbey Meadows and the East Anglian Daily Times identified the spot as being near to Ixworth’s Bathing Place. What was probably quite a casual arrangement became more formal in July 1903 when the Parish Council proposed paying a nominal rent of one shilling per year to the Abbey Estate for the use of Norton’s Hole for bathing. The Hole was in the river about 300 metres upstream of Hempyard Bridge. For the comfort of bathers the PC bought 30 yards of canvas to form a six-foot-high screen. The screen was erected by a local builder called Alfred Taylor. It was taken down and stored each winter, but not before Alfred had sprinkled it with paraffin and pepper to deter the vermin.
It was not long before Norton’s Hole was renamed Booty’s Hole. In October 1904 Fred Balaam was looking for a likely fishing spot when he saw the head and shoulders of John Clarke Booty sticking out of mid-river. Mr Booty was a wine & spirit merchant with a business at what we now call the Cyder House; the Coroner’s jury returned a verdict of suicide during temporary insanity. The body had not been found in the bathing hole but in a shallow above it; nevertheless, Ixworth’s anglers call it Booty’s Hole to this day.
The PC minutes show how the site developed over the years. The canvas was strung across the river, just above water level, and a ladder was installed for easier access to the water. This was replaced by steps in due course and then a platform was added where bathers could dress. The use of the site always depended on the goodwill of the owner of the Abbey Estate and the tenants of the Abbey and the Dairy Farm. The latter was because his cattle were grazed on the Abbey Meadow. The maintenance of this goodwill depended on the enforcement of strict rules such as bathing being prohibited between certain hours and the insistence that boys over the age of thirteen ‘must wear drawers.’
Inevitably there was friction and in 1921 the Abbey’s tenant, Mrs Gratrix, requested that the bathing place be removed. In 1923 her successor, Mr Clancey, went so far as to have the structures at the site pulled down. Worse still, his gamekeeper was spoken to by the Police for shooting over the heads of boys swimming in the river in an attempt to frighten them. Clancey agreed to restore the bathing place and the PC added screens of iron sheeting and a diving board. Following accusations of trespassing in 1929 Mrs Cartwright, owner of the Abbey Estate, withdrew her permission for bathing in the river. She relented, and gave permission for changing cubicles, only on condition that bathing would only take place before 8am and after 6pm. This effectively prevented children from bathing and an alternative location was sought; one suggestion being a meadow in Stow Road.
Despite a wealth of detail in the PC minutes we are not told when bathing moved away from Booty’s Hole but we know that it did because Frank Bean talks about river bathing in his wonderful book. His descriptions are from the 1930s and 40s and he talks about corrugated iron bathing huts and a diving board next to Rabbit Plantation; this was downstream of Hempyard Bridge, a short distance up from the watermill. He also mentions a paddling pool in the shallows next to the bridge, enjoyed by children and dogs to this day. Frank’s own sketch-map is shown below. He reminisces about the huge pike to be caught in Booty’s Hole but he also makes the point that the river was routinely deeper in those days and the Abbey moats rarely dried out.
In 1980 Evelyn Robinson wrote to the Ixworth Magazine saying “there were two bathing huts up in the meadows, one for the ladies and one for gentlemen. That’s where most of us youngsters learnt to swim.” Her piece had an illustration to go with it (see top.) In 1987 Jack Froud wrote: “non-swimmers paddled near the bridge whilst further on towards the mill, where the water was deeper, were the old tin huts which served as our changing rooms. Our swimming pool, complete with a diving board, was where I learnt to swim with a blown-up cycle tube around my waist to keep me afloat.” Jack’s article was also honoured with an illustration (see right.) In an article in 1979 Ivan Frost recorded his memories of the Ixworth Fete before WW2. He told us: “Water sports took place on the river at Booty’s Hole. There were 100 & 200 yard swimming races and a diving competition. Children’s ‘ABC’ tin plates were put at the bottom of the river. The divers had to collect those plates.” Since the Fete took place in the Abbey Meadow, Booty’s Hole would have been a convenient location for the water sports; in fact there is a newspaper reference as early as 1886 to sports events in the river during the Fete.
The Parish Meeting in 1943 had appointed a sub-committee to inspect the bathing huts. However, the PC minutes of March 1950 describe them as being partially destroyed and the pool as having not been used since 1949 due to a lack of water during the drought. The PC had the power to spend money on restoring the site but the issue was adjourned for meeting after meeting until January 1952 when the decision was taken that nothing more could be done. At the PC meeting in May 1952 someone asked the question ‘where or what is the Bathing Pool?’
It would be an achievement indeed to recreate the days of Ixworth’s Bathing Place. River levels are frequently very low and the tree cover at Rabbit Plantation has expanded down to the waterside. Pollution from chemical run-off is more common and waterborne diseases are an ever-present threat. Many residents can remember a chalky bottom to the river, fewer weeds and plentiful freshwater mussels. But who knows, if the Green Ixworth campaign can get some traction maybe we can bring the Black Bourn back to its former glory and all experience what our predecessors took for granted.