Come on in, the wa­ter’s lovely

Bri­tain’s his­toric out­door swim­ming pools, long ne­glected, are back in busi­ness. Emma Hughes dives in to find out why we all love a lido

Country Life Every Week - - Opinion -

The Lon­don Zoo pen­guins didn’t know they were born. For 70 years, they splashed around in one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary open-air swim­ming en­vi­ron­ments ever cre­ated. The Lu­betkin Pen­guin Pool, which opened in 1934, was an ocean-liner run glo­ri­ously aground in Re­gent’s Park. Its flip­pered res­i­dents sun­bathed on swoops of re­in­forced con­crete lead­ing into the wa­ter and posed grandly by the col­umns like Ro­mans in the Se­nate. It was a Mod­ernist symphony in blue and white— and a lido in all but name.

All over the coun­try, peo­ple were do­ing much the same. The gleam­ing mu­nic­i­pal pools that are syn­ony­mous with 1930s elegance brought the hol­i­day mood to Bri­tain. Work­ers had fi­nally won the right to paid leave and they wanted some­where to spend it. Li­dos were for lark­ing about in and fall­ing in love around as well as swim­ming and you left your cares be­hind as you passed through the turn­stiles. They were places to be seen; you dressed up to get un­dressed. The Lon­don Zoo pool’s de­signer, Ge­or­gian-born émi­gré Berthold Lu­betkin, was chan­nelling all of this—and the pen­guins seemed to hold their beaks a lit­tle higher as they strut­ted around their new home.

ev­ery­one knows what hap­pened next. Pack­age hol­i­days, patchy weather and a pur­suit of nov­elty in all things com­bined to put li­dos in the shade. Leisure cen­tres took over and, of the 169 li­dos built dur­ing the 1930s, only 31 were still open to swim­mers in 2016. how­ever, the tide is turn­ing.

More than a dozen li­dos have been re­stored or re­opened in the past few years, from Pen­zance’s tidal Ju­bilee Bathing Pool (which turned the town into the Sain­tTropez of the South-west when it opened in 1935) to Gourock Out­door Pool in Ren­frew­shire, over­look­ing the Clyde es­tu­ary. Toot­ing Bec Lido, which dodged the axe in the 1990s, is now a train­ing ground for swim­mers at­tempt­ing a Chan­nel cross­ing: af­ter fewer

than 20 lengths you’ve done a mile. How­ever, what’s made us fall back in love with them?

‘For me, the magic lies in the com­bi­na­tion of the lido’s ob­vi­ous phys­i­cal charms —the peace, the views, the clear wa­ter, the year-round swim­ming—and the sense of com­mu­nity,’ ex­plains Alexan­dra Hemins­ley, author of Leap In (£12.99, Hutchin­son), a mem­oir of be­com­ing an open-air swim­mer. ‘In the UK, most of the li­dos still in ac­tion are there be­cause of the peo­ple who swim in them: they care about them and they care about each other. What they don’t care about is what you wear, how fast you are or whether you look “right”.’

Her favourite is Pells Pool in Lewes, East Sus­sex, a 150ft spring-fed oa­sis over­looked by Cor­si­can pines. Not strictly a lido (it was built in 1860), spir­i­tu­ally, it’s still very much un­der the mu­nic­i­pal-baths um­brella. ‘Af­ter a win­ter of harsh salty seawa­ter or chlo­ri­nated cap­tiv­ity, the wa­ter of spring­time at the Pells tastes like ac­tual heaven. It’s as far from the mood of swim­ming in the sea as it’s pos­si­ble to be, but ev­ery bit as joy­ous.’

Pells is one of the lucky ones: it’s never closed. The waters have been con­sid­er­ably chop­pier for nearby Salt­dean Lido, Bri­tain’s only Grade Ii*-listed coastal lido. In its hey­day, it looked like a film set, com­plete with a man­made beach (fea­tur­ing ‘real seashore sand’), speak­ers that played big-band tunes to bathers and a Hol­ly­wood-style soda foun­tain. Af­ter decades of slow de­cline, it closed in 1994 and the site’s then owner an­nounced it was go­ing to be turned into flats in 2010. How­ever, he didn’t bar­gain on the Save Salt­dean Lido Cam­paign, whose mem­bers fought first to save it from con­ver­sion, then for fund­ing—and, on May 27, the pool wel­comed its first swim­mers in 20 years.

One of them was Re­becca Crook, who’s been in­volved from the start. ‘When the wa­ter was turned on, it was in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing,’ she tells

‘Li­dos aren’t mu­se­ums: they’re her­itage you can re­ally in­ter­act with’

me. ‘We’re prob­a­bly get­ting about 30 emails a day about it, from peo­ple who learned to swim there and now want to bring their own chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. We had some­body the other week get­ting in touch from Aus­tralia. She’d met her hus­band there when he was a life­guard in the 1960s. It’s an iconic build­ing and our vi­sion was to get it back to how it was in the 1930s, but li­dos aren’t mu­se­ums: they’re her­itage you can re­ally in­ter­act with.’

The new, im­proved Salt­dean’s waters are now heated for the first time and swim­mers are able to make the most of its sun ter­races and ro­tunda win­dows via a pop-up cafe. All of this, of course, comes at a cost—as do plan­ning ap­pli­ca­tions and le­gal chal­lenges. ‘The re­al­ity of these projects is that you need hard cash,’ laments Miss Crook.

For the li­dos whose fu­ture hangs in the bal­ance (Peck­ham’s in south Lon­don and West York­shire’s Ot­ley Lido, to name just two), Salt­dean is an in­spi­ra­tion. An­other is Cleve­land Pools. Stand­ing on Bath’s small­est cres­cent, the coun­try’s only sur­viv­ing Ge­or­gian pool is on course to wel­come its first bathers since 1984 next year, hav­ing spent the past 30 years as a trout farm serv­ing cream teas.

‘I’ve al­ways been en­thralled by the ro­man­ti­cism of it,’ en­thuses Sally Helvey, an in­de­pen­dent tour guide and Cleve­land cam­paigner. Like many lido-lovers, she traces her de­vo­tion back to child­hood. ‘My grand­mother lived in Bath­wick and, in the 1960s, we’d walk down the hill onto the canal to get to the pool. You could hear the squeals of de­light from the chil­dren who were al­ready there and that sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion was ab­so­lutely won­der­ful. I can clearly re­mem­ber the feel­ing of get­ting into the cold wa­ter on a hot day and com­ing out with goose­bumps, then the sun on my skin and the starched tow­els. It just felt so much health­ier and more ex­cit­ing than swim­ming in­doors.’

Thanks to its his­tory (peo­pled with colour­ful sorts; its Vic­to­rian pro­pri­etor, Capt Evans, kept bathers in line with a pet ba­boon) and po­ten­tial for com­mu­nity use, Cleve­land se­cured back­ing for re­de­vel­op­ment from the Her­itage Lot­tery Fund in 2014. The waters in the new in­car­na­tion will be heated for the first time in 200 years and the fo­cus will be on year-round

use. ‘If you’re train­ing for a triathlon, it’ll be great,’ ad­vo­cates Mrs Helvey. ‘And, even if peo­ple don’t want to swim, they can do wa­ter-polo prac­tice or pi­lot ra­dio-con­trolled boats around.’

And the Lon­don Zoo pen­guins? They were moved in 2011 to a new site called Pen­guin Beach, which is un­likely to trou­ble RIBA. Lu­betkin’s Grade I-listed pool is still in situ, com­plete with its orig­i­nal Hock­ney-blue-tiled floor, so, with the lido re­nais­sance in full swing, per­haps it’s time for a re­fill?

Carry on swim­ming: af­ter suf­fer­ing at the hands of cheap pack­age hol­i­days, out­door pools such as Bude in Corn­wall (above and pre­vi­ous page), the Ju­bilee Lido in Pen­zance (be­low) and the Tin­side Lido in Plymouth, Devon (right) are mak­ing a come­back

An ocean-liner run glo­ri­ously aground: the Lu­betkin Pen­guin Pool at Lon­don Zoo

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