What could be the country’s oldest outdoor swimming pool still in use has been saved from becoming a lily pond or playground for ducks, after a fund-raising campaign by a Cambridge college.

Archives suggest that the listed Fellows’ Bathing Pool at Christ’s College was dug from the alluvial soil in a corner of the college garden in the mid-17th century. Illustrious alumni who might conceivably have swum in it include Charles Darwin, Louis Mountbatten and Nicolas Serota. It’s possible that Sacha Baron Cohen took a dip in the long hot summer of 1990.

Over the past 20 years the pool slipped into gradual decline with fewer and fewer Fellows brave or foolhardy enough to venture in. Only last year its future was as murky as the water that filled it. Alternative uses were mooted – including ornamental pond.

The college already had a sizable donation earmarked for the pool from alumnus Richard Barlow-Poole, who swam in it in the late 1930s. Though extremely generous, it wasn’t enough. So Christ’s development director Catherine Twilley, a keen swimmer, launched an appeal to alumni to bring the pool up to modern standards and restore the Palladian-style pavilion. Donations soon began to pour in.

Meanwhile an investigation into the pool’s history discovered that it was not Victorian, as had been supposed, but far older. Emmanuel College, which stands next to Christ’s, also boasts a venerable pool complete with thatched changing room - and which pool is the older of the two is hard to fathom. Christ’s records show that a pool existed before 1688 but there’s a tantalising gap in its archives for the preceding decades.

The design of Christ’s pool is suavely classical with its perimeter decorated by busts of Christ’s scholars – including astronomer Ralph Cudworth, poet John Milton, mathematician Nicholas Saunderson and polymath Joseph Mede. An imposing urn is rumoured to hold the ashes of CP Snow.

Until its renovation earlier this year, Christ’s pool was fed by Hobson’s Conduit, the 400-year-old water course provided by the carrier Thomas Hobson to bring clean water into a disease ridden town. On hot afternoons this summer Christ’s students, Fellows and staff cooled off in sparkling water supplied by the mains, filtrated and kept pristine by a roving robot.

At the suggestion of Barlow-Poole, who sadly died before he could see it restored, the pool has been renamed the Malcolm Bowie Bathing Pool in honour of the Master of Christ’s from 2002 to 2006. The title bathing, rather than swimming, hints at a reflective, soul-soothing activity: a gentler counterpoint to frenetic lane bashing. In a little corner of Christ’s, hidden behind ancient walls, the swimming and dreaming goes on.

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