Nestled on the southern coast of England, this charming seaside town of ours called Selsey, has a rich history that stretches back centuries. Little known, yet one of the most enduring traditions it has, is sea bathing: a practice that has evolved from ancient rituals to the popular leisure activity we know today. Here, we take you on a short overview of an 800-year journey through the history of sea bathing in Selsey, from its humble beginnings to its significant role in the town's cultural identity.
Ancient Origins and Early Traditions
The story of sea bathing in Selsey begins in antiquity. The town's proximity to the sea and its abundant natural beauty attracted early inhabitants who recognized the therapeutic properties of the saltwater. Archaeological evidence suggests that even during the Roman occupation of Britain, Selsey's coastline was frequented by bathers seeking the healing benefits of the sea. Romans believed in the medicinal qualities of seawater for various ailments, and they constructed rudimentary bathing facilities to enjoy these benefits.
The Medieval Era: Spiritual Significance
During the medieval period, sea bathing in Selsey took on a spiritual dimension. The town's close association with Christianity, dating back to the arrival of Saint Wilfrid in the 7th century, added a religious element to the practice of sea bathing. Pilgrims would visit Selsey to experience the holy waters, which were believed to possess curative powers. The pilgrimage to Selsey became a popular tradition, and the act of sea bathing took on a more ceremonial and ritualistic significance.
The Victorian Influence
The 19th century marked a significant turning point in the history of sea bathing in Selsey, when the Victorian era saw a renewed interest in the benefits of sea air and seawater, believing it to be an antidote to the rapidly industrializing and urbanized world. Selsey's pristine coastline, untouched by the modernisation seen in other areas of the country, became a magnet for tourists and holidaymakers seeking rejuvenation and relaxation by the sea.
As the popularity of sea bathing grew, so did the infrastructure to accommodate visitors. Bathing machines were introduced, providing modesty and privacy to those venturing into the water. These horse-drawn carts allowed bathers, particularly women, to change into their swimwear away from prying eyes before being wheeled into the water. The introduction of the railway in the mid-19th century further boosted Selsey's accessibility, bringing even more visitors to enjoy the benefits of sea bathing.
Changing Attitudes in the 20th Century
The 20th century brought about changes in attitudes toward sea bathing, influenced by advancements in medicine and a greater understanding of hygiene. The focus shifted from sea bathing solely for therapeutic purposes to a recreational activity. People came to the coast not just to improve their health but also for leisure and enjoyment.
Improved transportation links, such as the expansion of road networks and the increasing affordability of people owning cars, made Selsey even more accessible to day-trippers and holidaymakers from neighbouring towns and cities. The town's appeal as a holiday destination grew, leading to the opening of guesthouses, hotels, and holiday parks to accommodate the influx of tourists.
Contemporary Sea Bathing Culture
We'd like to think that sea bathing remains an integral part of Selsey's identity and of course, The Selsey Sea Bathing Society has helped contribute to this immensely in the past four years, as well as some of the smaller groups who have gathered in the past and continue to do so. And whilst the old Victorian bathing machines may be a thing of the past, the spirit of those times lives on as we gather at the water's edge to enjoy the healing power of the sea and each other's company. From its ancient origins as a spiritual practice to its transformation into a popular Victorian pastime and a cherished contemporary tradition, sea bathing in Selsey has endured the test of time. It has evolved from a perceived cure for ailments to a recreational activity that enriches the lives of locals and visitors alike. As long as the waves continue to kiss the shore and the sun graces the horizon, Selsey's connection to sea bathing will ensure, intertwining the town's history with the timeless allure of the ocean.