Its amazing to me that a year has gone by since the word “pandemic” became part of our everyday conversation. Pandemic … social distancing … quarantining ... what a crazy, upside down world it has been. Most of our pleasures and activities have had to be put on hold. For the past year, many of us have been stuck-at-home unable to do so many of the things we once enjoyed. Streaming has become our main form of entertainment. With all this stress and worry, binge-watching and reaching for a sweet or salty snack was the only way to cope.
Quite a few of us decided one way to keep busy was to BAKE (as any trip to the supermarket this past year proved). I know I did. Baking can be both comforting and challenging. I’m not going to tell you how many of my ‘bakes’ ended up in the trash. But, most did not. They did, however, end up on my ‘hips’. Baking, stress eating, binge-watching, yikes! Now it’s February and I’m beginning to think summer … and beaches … and swimming … and BATHING SUITS!
When we were last in England (pre-pandemic), we spent some time on the Isle of Wight. This tiny island lies just off the southern coast in the English channel. An idyllic summer vacation destination which has long been sought after by locals who want to get away for a relaxing week-end or summer beach vacation. Of course, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a summer residence on the north side of the Isle, the Osborne House. (Where didn’t they have a summer residence?). They would spend July and August at this palatial summer home and the Island flourished because of it. This Royal stamp of approval then attracted many other famous Victorians, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll and John Keats are just a few of the historical greats who were inspired by this “Enchanted Isle”.
Very easy to get to, the fastest and most fun way is by hovercraft (which, of course, we did). A quick ten-minute ride floating over the ocean and you’re there! The hovercraft docks in the small hamlet of Ryde. Now a little down-on-its-heels, this once thriving beachfront community still boasts a grand lady of a hotel, The Royal Esplanade. An impressive Victorian structure, built in 1865, on the site of what was Kemps Original Royal Baths.
Kemps Royal Baths were popular with people from all over the country. ‘Taking the waters’ as it was called, was a very popular remedy for ill health. Promoted as beneficial for gout, liver problems and rheumatism, thousands flocked to Ryde for relief of these and other common ailments. On their first visit to this, or other beachside resorts, most people had never seen the ocean before and the thought of going into the sea was a daunting experience. Kemps also, however, had the answer. They supplied a brilliant invention which was becoming popular at all seaside resorts in Great Britain and around Europe. Enter the BATHING MACHINE!
During Victorian times, men and women were segregated at the beach. To be seen in your bathing costume was scandalous! Bathing Machines allowed an individual to enter, in their street clothes, on land, at one end … change into their bathing costume … and exit from the other end … stepping down into the sea. If you wished to use a Bathing Machine, you would go to a waiting room, pay your fee and your name would be put on a list. First come … first serve. While waiting, of course, you’d have a cuppa, read the newspaper or chat with other customers. It was very social. Friends of the same sex would go together, or family members could share a Machine.
These wooden carts were then pulled or rolled into the ocean, by horses or men. They had walls, a roof, a door at each end and wooden steps leading down into the sea. This wooden box on wheels prevented anyone from seeing the bather from the shore, providing complete privacy on a very public beach! Some machines were even fitted with canvas canopies to provide a private enclosed space so that the bather was completely hidden from view while in the water. In 1805 Walley Chamberlain Oulton wrote about the Bathing Machine: “The bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.”
Most people could not swim. If the person using the bathing machine was not a strong swimmer, he or she could request a ‘dipper’. A dipper was a strong swimmer, of the same sex as the customer, of course, who would assist the customer in and out of the ocean, or teach them how to swim. Additionally, a cord might be tied around the customer’s waist and then tied to the end of the box, making sure he or she was not ‘carried out to sea’.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a bathing machine (which has been recently restored and is on display at Osborne Beach). The Queen’s bathing machine was quite ornate with not only a front porch, but curtains, and a toilet.
Bathing Machines were used for over 150 years. And should you visit the Isle of Wight today, you’ll see many of these private bathing boxes, without wheels, lining the golden, sandy beaches and being used as beach huts. Many are furnished with tables, chairs and even a little kitchenette, fully equipped so that you can enjoy a cuppa while sunbathing. How civilized!
The BATHING MACHINE might be a throwback to Victorian times, but given our bulging Covid-15 populace, and the fact that its already February and we’re still social distancing, it could quite possibly make a comeback this year.