Thames Lido; pic: Andre Pattenden

Creating a Splash

20th April 2018

Outdoor swimming is undergoing something of a renaissance – and lidos across the country are taking their place in the spotlight once again. Deborah Mulhearn finds out more about their past and their current resurgence…

“Lidos are to swimming pools as lingerie is to underwear,” said the late environmental campaigner, writer and confirmed outdoor swimmer Roger Deakin, creating an image that perfectly sums up the sensuous experience of swimming in a (preferably heated) lido. Unlike ‘wild’ swimming, which is about connecting with nature and the elements, swimming in a lido, or outdoor pool to use its more prosaic term, is also about connecting with other people.

That is, if you can find one. Lidos were once common in our towns and cities, especially in London and the South, but also around Britain’s coastline, with a surprising number in chilly Scotland and northern seaside resorts. Their heyday was the interwar years, when around 200 were built, many with stylish Art Deco designs and white concrete more redolent of the Mediterranean than our choppy seas, in what amounted to a great municipal building programme and the pursuit of health through outdoor exercise.

Now swimmers and campaigners around the country are starting new community-led movements and reclaiming their lidos. Historic Pools of Britain is an umbrella organisation set up in 2015 to support campaigns and create a database of pools and lidos at risk and those successfully restored. Two quintessential 1930s British seaside lidos reopened last year: Saltdean, near Brighton, and Tinside in Plymouth, their original Art Deco features lovingly reinstated. Another survivor from 1935 is the now Grade II-listed Uxbridge Lido, its tiered fountains and shining white render restored in 2010.

In their heyday lidos attracted up to a thousand swimmers and spectators a day. One summer Saturday, a few weeks after it opened in 1935, nearly 35,000 people paid to either swim, sunbathe or spectate at New Brighton Open Air Bathing Pool in Wallasey (then Cheshire, now Merseyside); they weren’t known as lidos until later, and then usually only in the south. Resorts competed with each other with synchronised swimming galas, beauty shows and daring water stunts. But the post-war overseas holiday boom and increasingly high running costs saw scores of closures. By the 1980s they were mostly derelict white elephants, their walls and outlines still visible in our parks and around our coastlines like unvisited archaeological sites.

A few have resisted closure or been restored against the odds: from the most northerly, the heated seawater lido at Stonehaven near Aberdeen, to the most southerly, the Grade II listed Jubilee Pool in Penzance, opened in 1935 and still going strong; from municipal glories like Tooting Bec Lido, dating from 1906 and one of the largest in the UK, to Kimpton Pool Club in Hertfordshire, a tiny family-owned lido and the last of its type in the country. Guildford Lido and Peterborough Lido have been in continuous use since they opened in 1933 and 1936 respectively. Many are now run by charitable trusts, volunteer organisations and Friends’ groups.

Tooting Bec was the first lido built for the public in a London park. “It is the only place in London that I know where everyone smiles,” says Janet Smith in her definitive account of Britain’s lidos, Liquid Assets, published in 2005 by English Heritage but sadly out of print.

One 1930s lido in south London has even inspired a novel. The Lido, by first-time author Libby Page (published this week by Orion Fiction) is a feelgood ‘up lit’ story about the fight to save a much-loved lido from closure, and the friendship between a lonely young journalist and a local woman who has swum there since it opened.

The campaign in the novel is fictional but the lido is real. Brockwell Lido opened in 1937 and despite some ups and downs remains a much-loved community asset, known as Brixton Beach for its laid-back, friendly atmosphere and park setting.

“I’m originally from a small town and when I moved to London it was a shock to the system,” says Libby. Swimming in her local lido made her feel connected to her community but was also a much-needed link to nature, she says. “As well as inspiring my novel, it’s an amazing way to see the seasons passing. Living in a city you can easily lose your connection to nature, and swimming in a lido or outdoor pool can give you that back. Trees, sky, weather – it’s so important but so easy to forget as we rush about our daily lives.”

Libby sees a lido as a special place “where people from all walks of life, generations and backgrounds come together – and the lido in the novel is a metaphor for that sense of egalitarian community,” says Libby. “So they are worth fighting for.”

Many of these ‘urban beaches’ were based on the design of the famous Piscine Molitor in Paris, an Art Deco lido which opened in 1929 and where the modern bikini was launched in 1946. Like many of its imitators, Piscine Molitor fell into disrepair in the 1980s but was eventually rescued and is now an upmarket pool and hotel complex.

Most British lidos were free, with amenities and design features such as changing rooms, drying rooms and sunbathing terraces, cafes, fountains and diving boards for the daring (now all dismantled due to health and safety restrictions).

Scarborough’s was one of the first, opening during the war in 1915 and demolished in the 1980s. Blackpool followed in 1923 with a huge Beaux Arts swimming stadium, the biggest in the world at one point. It lasted 60 years, succumbing to decline of the resort and the bulldozer in 1983. The 1926 Sea Bathing Lake at Southport lasted a little longer, until 1993.

“Historic lidos appeal to people on lots of different levels,” says Henrietta Billings, director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, “from the novelty of a dip in the open air, or childhood memories of showing off by the pool, to downright appreciation of community landmarks built with lashings of civic pride.”

SAVE has been an active supporter of campaigns to restore several lidos.

“Thankfully, after years of neglect and being deeply out of fashion, there’s a growing resurgence of interest in these structures – and it’s been very exciting to see the successful restoration and revival of several in recent years like the Grade II listed baths in Clifton, Bristol, Saltdean Lido near Brighton – named one of the places of Historic England’s History of England in 100 Places – and Tinside Lido in Plymouth. All these and many others show there is still hope and potential for sites like Margate’s lido and baths in Cliftonville – closed and boarded up for 30 years and a recent entry on SAVE’s Building at Risk Catalogue,” says Henrietta.

At the other end of the country, the unusual triangular-shaped Jubilee Pool in Penzance opened the same year. After decades of neglect and threats to demolish it, it finally reopened in 2016 after a £3m restoration from among others, the Coastal Communities Fund.

They all had their own character and individual histories. Ruislip Lido was built by the Grand Union Canal Company and has its own miniature railway. Beccles and Halesowen in Suffolk are small community-run survivors. Eversholt and
Woburn in Bedfordshire have thriving lidos. Letchworth’s has been saved. Broomhill Lido in Ipswich was awarded a Heritage Lottery Grant in 2017, to help its campaign.

But others lie abandoned and if not unloved, unlikely to be rescued. Grange-over-Sands in Cumbria and Wealdstone in Harrow still exist, but are deteriorating day by day.

Outdoor swimming pools can be prohibitively expensive to run, and while there are many campaigns full of enthusiastic and committed fundraisers, the restoration is only the beginning. Enough income must be generated to run and maintain the pool beyond that point. Modern heating and filtration requirements, the cost of the utilities, staffing and general maintenance can scupper a business plan. Nowadays, other uses are needed that can generate a surplus income to keep the pool afloat.

Two imaginative schemes that bring the lido experience right up to date are Clifton Lido in Bristol, now a year-round facility run by a local restaurateur, and Thames Lido in Reading. “It’s not always easy to adapt listed buildings,” says architect Sam Kendon, a partner in Marshall & Kendon Architects, who worked on both schemes. “It took a while to work out how the different elements of the new complex would work together. At Clifton a spa and restaurant were added to the pool, and they are often open at the same time.”

The scheme has been “successful in a way that nobody quite anticipated,” he says, “and proves that there is a demand for open air swimming. The diners and drinkers don’t seem to bother the swimmers, and vice versa.”

Thames Lido was built for women bathers in 1902 and was fed by water from the River Thames. It languished for four decades but has now been reopened and is creating a splash. It also has a glass screen and rainwater tanks to keep water costs down and openings punched through an original river wall so that boaters passing through the river lock can look into the lido.

Lidos are as much about the future as the past, insists Kendon. “And eighty per cent of them have heated water, so there really is no excuse,” he laughs.

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