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Taking plunge in Cambridgeshire – cold bathing in Cambridge

On the banks of the Cam in Cambridge is a rare site a popular outdoor public lido. However, what is less well-known is that Cambridge pioneered swimming pools by developing cold baths, which although developed for medicinal reasons have progressed into recreational uses.

A precursor for such baths was a cold bath which had a small arch with Gothic tracery existed in the gardens of John Mortlock on land which was owned by the Austin Friars. As such it may have had an earlier origin but sadly as all evidence of this has now gone.

However it is their establishment within the University’s college system which makes Cambridge unique (even rival Oxford could not match this). Five colleges have records of cold baths.

At Peterhouse College, it is noted that:

“There is a Grove South of the College, and a large Garden beyond, abounding with all manner of Wall-fruits, and a Cold-bath, much frequented by the Students.”                       

Ackermann notes that this site still survived in 1815, noting that: ‘a cold bath is one of the valuable appendages of the place’. It does not appear to have survived beyond this date however.

A Cold Bath was also found Clare College.  John Willis Clark (1886) in The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge and of the Colleges of Cambridge and Eton Late describes it as:

“there was a bath, lately removed, in the basement of the west range, between the gate leading to the walks and the south-west corner of the quadrangle.”

Edward Carter (1753) in his The History of the County of Cambridge describes a cold bath at Pembroke College, at the end of his description of the gardens:

“There are besides several other Gardens, belonging to the Apartments of Fellows, in one of which, is another small and simple, yet well contrived WaterWork, which is continually supplying a large Cold-Bath with fresh Water; the over-plus of which runs through the Second Court, and so into the King’s Ditch.”

Yet the Cold Bath or Fellow’s Pool still survives in Emmanuel College Fellows’ garden.  It was constructed in 1690 and is claimed to be the oldest swimming pool in the country although evidence suggests it may be the following site. Much of the current fabric however is from the 1800s. Its waters were derived from the Hobson conduit, and was often green with algae, some much that a white line was painted on the bottom to help Fellows swim. Yet since the restoration in the 1980s the supply is from the mains. The present changing thatched changing hut dates from the mid-19th century and replaced the previous classical style hut which was constructed about 1745. Although located in the Fellows’ Garden, junior members of the college are permitted to use the pool at certain times.

The Christ’s College cold bath (TL 451 585) also claims to be the oldest but has an accepted date of 1699 yet recent accounts from the archive suggests 1688. Clark (1886) notes:

“The Gardens of this college are pleasant and tastefully disposed containing a good bowling green summer house and a cold bath surrounded little wilderness. In the garden is a large mulberry.”

Perhaps the most famed of all such pools, being where Charles Darwin may have swam. Like Emmanuel at one end there is a tri-arched summerhouse and beside the pool are busts of Cudworth, Milton and Saunderson and stone vase in Memory of Joseph Mede.

Again until recently, the pool which is fed by Hobson’s conduit, was murky and uninviting and plans were in place to establish it as a duck pond. However, in 2010 it was restored and renamed Malcolm Bowie’s Bathing Pool in honour of the Master of the College from 2002 to 2006. Sadly, again like Emmanuel’s Bath, it is now fed by mains water, but at least like it, it is being used for swimming.

In a side development Clark (1886) also notes that when St. Catherine’s Hall was built in 1875, in the cellar of one of the houses a bath was constructed for the use of the undergraduates. Whether this was spring-fed or not is not noted.

The cold baths of Christ College and Emmanuel can be observed, although not at close hand in their gardens. To get a closer view find a friendly undergraduate.

Extracted from

Holy wells and healing springs of Cambridgeshire