Still in the swim at 80 years old

It was 80 years ago this year that the rock pool in Newcastle, Co Down, opened to bathers. Gail Bell talks to a hardy group of female swimmers determined to keep the 'rock' open for another eight decades

GLAMOROUS bathing costumes synonymous with the 1930s and ear-squishing 60s flower-power caps may no longer be fixtures of poolside fashion, but, in a small corner of Co Down, a hardy breed of female swimmers is turning the tide in favour of all things vintage. The trip back in time is in celebration of the 80th anniversary of Newcastle Rock Pool - one of the few remaining outdoor seawater pools in Ireland - and leading the way is a dedicated group of women who have been in the vanguard of a long-running campaign to secure the future of the popular facility. This week the seaside town will be marking the special anniversary with a retro-style street parade, harbour swim, cine memoirs and poolside art, culminating on Friday in a gala day with 'Rockarama' event and synchronised swimming display at the pool which first opened its lockers way back in June, 1933. If the festivities seem a little indulgent for what is essentially a square of seawater past its heyday, don't verbalise that thought to the hardcore members of 'Friends of the Rock Pool'. Passionate all-weather bathers, they have no truck with modern, chlorine-fuelled indoor enclosures and even consider it a 'soft' option to choose a wetsuit over baring goose-pimpled flesh for a cold, invigorating dip in the briny Irish sea. To get an idea of their commitment, look no further than daring Dundrum woman Kathleen Heenan, a sprightly 78-year-old who swims in snow, rain and hail and has taught others how to keep afloat at the rock pool for more than 40 years.

As a child, Kathleen learned to swim at the Bloody Bridge river in Newcastle and then switched to the rock pool where she could complete her daily lengths in a safe, controlled environment. "The pool then was open from nine o'clock in the morning until nine at night in July and August," she recalls, "and in those days we had high diving boards and even top divers performing to good crowds. I miss the diving boards now, but we are really just grateful that the pool is still open. "Gradually, a swimming school started and I was invited to join and teach, gaining my coaching and teacher's certificates. "There have been tragedies recently with young people losing their lives near water which shows how important it is to teach our children how to cope with emergencies - and how to avoid them. "Many people today in the Newcastle and the wider area are grateful for learning these essential skills honed in Newcastle Rock Pool."

Kathleen, who still braves the elements most days to swim in the sea - she had just had her third dip of the day when I caught up with her - remembers gathering up seaweed from the floor of the rock pool in its early days after it was washed over a low wall which has since been built up. "The Newcastle Rock Pool has provided a great service and we must do what we can to keep it open," she adds. "I can remember people came from Banbridge, Rathfriland and Kilkeel to swim here. And the oldest person I taught to swim was a lady of 80 years of age. The pool has many happy memories for so many people. Long may it last." Bolstered by the recent spell of Mediterranean-type weather, the pool, run by Down District Council, has seen record numbers of swimmers in recent weeks, with ticket sales increasing by a massive 237 per cent. That is hardly surprising when you consider children can splash about for an entire day in the sunshine for just £1.60 - one of the obvious perks for parent and regular user Siobhan Corrigan, who packs up a picnic and spends each day of the summer holidays at the rock pool with her children. A devoted member of the lobbying 'Friends of the Rock Pool', the mother-of five says it was important to step up the campaign in this, the pool's special anniversary year.

"There have been rumblings of closure and various meetings with Down District Council over the years, but officials realise this unique facility is so important to so many people in and around Newcastle," she says. "It has been upgraded at various times in its history and had a new pump installed some years ago but it still must be maintained in terms of emptying, filling and cleaning the pool at regular intervals.

"As a parent and swimmer, I am passionate about securing its future because there is nothing quite like it.

"I learned to swim in the rock pool when I was a child and my children have all learned to swim here and also qualify as lifeguards. "I think the saltwater, which makes it easier to swim, and the fresh air are all part of the appeal - as are an absence of jellyfish which you can encounter in the open water. "At the end of the summer I have withdrawal symptoms when the pool shuts down, but we are delighted this year to have had the opening hours extended and the Rockarama event established which has been really popular with young people." Chairwoman of Friends of the Rock Pool, Orla McElroy (47) lists around 100 supporters on 'the books' and, like most of the regulars, she also harbours nostalgic childhood memories of splashing about at the pool during school holidays. "I have been coming here since I was four years old and now my three children swim at the 'Rock'," Orla, a qualified lifeguard who trained at the Rock Pool, says. "As a leader in an Irish-medium pre-school, I am lucky to be off during the summer months, but I can't wait until retirement when I can join the ranks of the women who swim in the sea every day. "People don't realise the sea temperature stays mostly constant and it is the temperature on land which makes you feel cold. "There is nothing as refreshing and energising for body and mind as emerging from the sea and then diving under a hot shower. "Even the thunder and lightening the other week didn't put us off. "We just waited until it passed and jumped into the water again."

? Anyone sufficiently impressed to step out of their artificially heated comfort zone and into the salty worthiness of the 'Rock' can do so for a fraction of the normal cover charge during the pool's birthday celebrations. You may swim in the rock pool for the nominal charge of 3p - the cost of a swim when the pool first opened. The actual cost was two and-a-half pence, but, with half pennies no longer in use, it was rounded up to the nearest penny. For more information visit Newcastle.


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