BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

13 November 2014

BBC Homepage

Local BBC Sites

Neighbouring Sites

Related BBC Sites


Contact Us

Places features

You are in: Wear > Places > Places features > Dawdon pit pool

Charmian Welsh training on a Sunday at Dawdon pit pool

Sunday training at Dawdon

Dawdon pit pool

Charmian Welsh was a "pit lassie" - and an Olympic and Commonwealth Games diver - who learned in a warm, murky, silt-bottomed pit pool. Come snow or shine she practised for hours with little to help her but her mother and a booklet of dives.

Charmian - now Rawlings - learned to swim in 1948, just before she was 11.

She found Dawdon pit pool a couple of years later and, from then on, she haunted the place. Hour after hour she trained, practising each dive over and over, working her way up to higher diving boards. At weekends she could spend all afternoon there.

Stand on the 10m board, she says, and look south and you could see Redcar, look north and you could see Sunderland.

She says: "In the summer time you got a lovely suntan, but also the water was much deeper here in Dawdon than it was in Durham [pool].

Durham pool was only about seven to eight feet deep; the pit pool, by contrast, was about 12-14 feet.

Charmian diving at Dawdon pit pool in the mid 1950s

As flat as a (diving) board

She'd still reach the bottom at that depth: "Oh yes, went down to the bottom every time. The bottom of the pool was covered with black muck. It was dusty. Occasionally you used to go down and bring it up and it was black. Black black.

"And it was very soft and, you know, just flowed away again. But when I used to train from the 3m I cleared a patch on the bottom and I knew that if I went down to that patch I knew that my dive went in in about the right place.

"Occasionally I used to fall off the board and go too far out. Then I had to be careful because there seemed to be a lump of concrete there."

The silt washed off as divers came up again and, says Charmian, the water was beautifully clean and warm and very soft.        

Soft and hard

Dawdon pool was the pit cooling pond - the water warm because it had been used to cool the engines in the pit. But it was a real pool, not just somewhere the local youth had decided to play in.

ASA Diving School at Dawdon c. 1954. Charmian is the only one not wearing a tracksuit. Middle row, third from the left.

ASA Diving School at Dawdon c. 1954

The ASA Diving School was there for a few years and Dawdon Swimming Club was based there.

Local children were taught how to swim with a belt tied around them attached to a length of string because the water was so deep they couldn't touch the bottom.

Charmian dived at Dawdon in all sorts of weather - rain, thunder, wind: "The wind used to twist me, to turn me, it didn't actually make me go over or short but it used to turn me. I've dived in snow."

The softness of the water was an issue. Charmian remembers: "In the olden days, when we had woollen swim suits, the wool used to rub the skin and make it sore because that's what the soft water used to do.

"It may sound funny to people who haven't experienced this but swimming in Shipcote water 50 years ago was a heavy water, Durham I was used to and Dawdon was very light.

"It's as though when you pulled against the water there was very little to pull against."

Soft water wasn't her only obstacle. She regularly used to split her swimming caps: "Diving from 10 metres, going into the water with my hands apart, the pressure used to split my caps. So I gave up wearing a swimming cap."

She also found it quicker to dive to the bottom and push off back to the top, especially in shallower pools, than dive and turn round. This played havoc with her ears too she says. When asked what effect both things had on her head she laughs: "Maybe that's why I'm not quite sane."

Charmian (far right) with her sister and her mother at Dawdon pit pool c. 1956

Charmian (r) with her sister and mother

Light and shade

Charmian had little formal training, seeing her coach, who lived in Essex, two or three times a year. She and her mother worked out hour after hour on the poolside, lucky that the man who was in charge showed them where the key was so they could let themselves in when it was closed.

Her mother didn't know much more than Charmian. She says: "We had a booklet. It had a list of dives and we used to open the booklet and say, 'Oh, I fancy having a go at that dive', and we used to work it out between us."

Once, while doing a dive she hadn't been taught how to do properly, she hit the board and drove her teeth through her lip. She still has a small scar.

On another occasion, in 1958 - and less to do with lack of training than the location of it - she was in Blackpool and crashed in a dive from the 10m board.

Charmian Welsh, having finished one somersault, diving at Dawdon pit pool

One somersault done

She explains: "In Dawdon the water was black and the sky was light. In Blackpool it was the other way around. The top was dark and the water was light.

"And when I did a two-and-a-half inward from 10m I lost my sense of position and I saw light and dark and I heard somebody yell, 'Out!', and I knew it was too late and I landed on water from 10m, curled up. And I had two great black eyes.

"I came back later in the day to go and do the same dive again and I spun too slowly this time, whereas before I'd spun too quickly, and I landed on the water.

"I actually broke the skin on my hips and I had two long bruises down each thigh. For years afterwards whenever I thought of that particular dive my hands used to sweat."

Two sorts of pain

Wasps also weren't kind to her, twice affecting her placing.

In Helsinki for her first international, the youngest member of the British team at only 15, one of the judges was stung by a wasp as she dived and he missed it.

She should have been awarded the average of the other marks; instead he gave her 0, pulling down her score and meaning she came 5th rather than 4th. She's very polite about it now and doesn't name the man or where he was from.

Charmian Welsh at Dawdon c. 1956

At Dawdon c. 1956

Then, on one dive in Turin, she stood on a wasp hiding in the matting the diving boards were covered in then. She still did the dive but not as well as she could.

She sounds calm and brave, this lady. Even more so when she tells you she doesn't actually like heights.

After the winter, she says: "The first thing I used to do when I went back to Dawdon, I used to stand and deliberately curl my toes over the edge and look down.

"I do not like heights. Heights physically hurt me, down here somewhere. They hurt me.

"And so I deliberately used to go to the end and look down and then do a very simple reverse somersault."

She insists she's not scared of heights, but dislikes them. Once used to 10m again she was fine, but she had to build up to it.

Local pride

Dawdon pit pool isn't Charmian's only connection to the mining industry.

The site of Dawdon colliery - the pool would have been on the left, the seating on the right - unless you know differently!

How the colliery site looks in 2009

Her grandfather was the manager at Thornley Colliery in East Durham, her father the undermanager, later taking over as manager.

She happily went underground many times, either on trips with the diving school at Dawdon or at Thornley when friends came to visit.

With astonishing prescience, her father was insistent that her two brothers shouldn't work in the pits, convinced the collieries wouldn't last, that they wouldn't see his sons through their working lives.

Charmian has a great affection for the area, considering herself a Thornley girl even though she went to school in Durham.

Charmian in 2009, on the site of the old colliery. Ahead is possibly what was the pool, to her right the poolside seats.

Charmian in 2009 on the colliery site

When she came back from Helsinki, her great potential not quite realised, volunteers from the village made her a presentation for having been. They did it again later in her career for which she is clearly still grateful.

These days Dawdon is a trek up the road from her home in Crook, although she can still work out where the colliery used to be from driving through the back streets, pointing out this house or that, where she stayed once or knew someone.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact location of her pool, her diving boards, the spectators' seating and a little sad that there's no monument, no Here Marks The Spot.

We do our best to guess and she smiles as she points here and there, at landmarks no longer visible.           

last updated: 13/03/2009 at 13:10
created: 12/03/2009

You are in: Wear > Places > Places features > Dawdon pit pool



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy