‘The man who bathed from the steps of the Royal Yacht Squadron’

One of the Squadron’s favourite anecdotes is told by Anthony Heckstall-Smith in his book Sacred Cowes: ‘It was “Tiggy” Bulkeley … who was Commodore on that fateful summer’s moming when Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny and his lady decided to take their morning swim from the Squadron steps, an action that was immortalised by a cartoon in The Tatler by H.M. Bateman. Sir Claude was virtually the last of the great sporting Corinthians; a daring steeplechase rider, an amateur boxer who had fought bare-fist against some of the Victorian ‘bruisers,’ an amateur bull-fighter and one of the finest shots in England. In moments of indignation he was given to challenging people to duels. As an old man he looked exactly like a Staffordshire bull terrier with his barrel chest and short, sturdy figure. When he and his wife flabbergasted the members of the Squadron by plunging from the club steps into the Solent, they were both over eighty years old. The Flag Officers, when faced with this unprecedented challenge to convention, could only suggest that the old people should make use of a bathing house nearby, but they ignored the hint. Finally, when “Tiggy” Bulkeley was asked to give a ruling, he said: “If the point is raised at a General Meeting, I shall say that the privilege of bathing from the steps shall be reserved for members of eighty years of age and over.” Thus with a wisdom worthy of Solomon he settled the matter, and Sir Claude and Lady de Crespigny continued to enjoy their morning swim with the minimum of inconvenience to themselves and the delight of many who lacked either their daring or their courage.’

If anything Heckstall-Smith underplays the explosive virility of Sir Claude, who was prepared to take on all comers on the subject of a morning swim. In 1921 he had a ‘verbal duel’ with the Harley Street physician Sir James Cantlie, who had stated in the Weekly Dispatch that persistent swimming could often lead to congested kidneys and a heart ‘dilated, irritable, irregular in action’. Sir Claude replied, in a letter to the Editor, that the doctor had ‘vastly exaggerated the ills attached to the early morning dip… My wife and I are some decades beyond the years he quotes, yet we bathe every morning before breakfast at the seaside, and the rougher it is the better the after effects.’ He then issues a challenge: ‘though he is about four years younger than I am, I will gladly walk him from London to Brighton, then swim and scull him between the two piers, and if by any chance it is a draw, we might box three 2-minute rounds. If he wins, I may then think his system of keeping in health is better than mine.’

Sir Claude believed that ‘people begin to take extravagant care of themselves too early in life. On reaching fifty or thereabouts they think they must stop taking exercise – ‘it might affect the heart,’ they say. They then begin to coddle themselves, which makes senility come twice as quickly as it would if they forgot they were supposed to be growing old.’ And ‘When a man has exercise and feels the good of it, he is doing the right thing.’

His own regime consisted of an early night (9.30 or 10 as a rule), a cup of chocolate at 7 a.m., breakfast at 8. ‘I don’t smoke at all, but I drink as much as I like. I always drink a pint of port at night, and sometimes more than a pint. This kind of regime mightn’t suit everyone, but it suits me.’ (Quotes are from Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, Forty Years of a Sportsman’s Life, revised edition, Mills & Boon, London, 1925, pp. 297-9, 305)


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