The post-war trend for pulling the plug on lidos is in reverse as people rediscover the benefits of outdoor swimming. The shift marks a victory for campaign groups and public health
Twitter was awash with blue rectangles and smiley, red-eyed swimmers last week as a clutch of lidos reopened across England.
“It felt like getting a ticket to Glasto,” said swimmer Will Thomas. “None of my friends got in.” His happy dip at London Fields lido over the Easter weekend was his first in a year. Elsewhere, the chirpy chief exec of Beccles Lido in Lowestoft, Shaun Crowley, reported that 4,000 slots had been sold in the first week. London’s Parliament Hill Lido, meanwhile, warned swimmers about having too much of a good thing amid rising cases of hypothermia.
These mostly jubilant reopenings came as Hull city council committed £4.6m to the restoration of its derelict Albert Avenue pool, located in one of the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods. Plans for private and public lidos have also been given the go-ahead from Brighton to Manchester, while a host of grassroots community campaigns to save existing ones are showing green shoots.
It all bolsters the sense that we’re in the midst of a lido renaissance. “Lidos have become fashionable over the past few years,” said Emma Pusill, author of The Lido Guide. The new virtue of wellbeing loves a blue backdrop and everyone knows someone who won’t stop talking about the (largely anecdotal) body-and-mind benefits of cold-water swimming.
With Covid, staying healthy and exercising has taken on a more pressing appeal. This, combined with restrictions on travel, has encouraged people to take the plunge. “In some ways, the pandemic has been the lido’s friend,” said Pusill. “We rediscovered our local environment and the simpler things in life.”
But can lidos, as Hull city council claims, help to “build a better society”? Deborah Aydon, who is leading the campaign to open a heated outdoor pool in Liverpool, thinks so. “In terms of economic recovery and public health, lidos feel like the perfect post-pandemic project,” she said. “They’re very much hubs for their community and are very inclusive.”
Yet lidos are not equally distributed across the UK: of the 100 or so outdoor pools that remain in the country, most are concentrated in the south of England. “They are a complete barometer of wealth inequality,” said Pusill.
This wasn’t always so. At ‘peak lido’ in the 1930s, hundreds of pools were built expressly for working-class communities as a provision for public health. Namely, hygiene (many houses still lacked sanitation) and the German-inspired fashion for exercise. Keeping up with das Joneses caused London alone to build some 60 pools, as its socialist mayor Herbert Morrison vowed to make “a city of lidos”.
Lidos feel like the perfect post-pandemic project
Purpose and perception soon matured to embody the novel concept of ‘leisure’, which had hitherto been the preserve of aristocrats. The vision of outdoor swimming pools as social escalators was not lost on the architects of these new democratic spaces: surrounded by sleek, shapely art deco buildings, a visit to the lido (the word itself made chic by its Venetian provenance) was imbued with thrilling, sometimes titillating, sophistication.
The second world war put paid to the fun times and in the years that followed, lidos’ fortunes waned. The 1960s brought with it easier access to the continent and its consistent sunshine. Meanwhile, lidos suffered chronic under-investment from local authorities caused, in part, by a new focus on creating indoor multi-service leisure centres. Threats remain: swimmers in Warwickshire are in uproar at the district council’s plans to replace Abbey Fields Pool in Kenilworth (where Waterlog author Roger Deacon learnt to swim) with two new indoor pools.
But elsewhere, the future is looking brighter for our lidos thanks to the tireless work of grassroots campaign groups, which have sought to revive them according to their original progressive principles.
In 2018, Cleveland Pools in Bath – the UK’s oldest public outdoor swimming pool – was awarded £4.7m by the National Lottery Heritage Fund following a 17-year campaign. Ina Harris, head of fundraising and a trustee, told Positive News: “It’s not in the posh end of Bath; we’re trying to keep it as affordable as possible.” Work begins this week and it’s set to open in July 2022.
Phil Bradby, founder of Save Grange Lido, has been working to bring Grange-over-Sands Lido – a striking art deco pool on the edge of the Lake District – back to life for a decade. “When we started out, people thought we were crazy trying to save a long-forgotten lido in the north. It’s amazing how things have changed in 10 years – now we’re part of a revolution.”
Five lidos saved by people power
1. Saltdean Lido, East Sussex
Named by English Heritage as one of the ‘seven wonders of the seaside’, this Brighton pool escaped the wrecking ball thanks to the persistence of local campaigners who raised £3m over seven years. It reopened in June 2017.
2. Droitwich Spa Lido, Worcestershire
One of only two salt-water lidos in the country, the 1930s-built pool was saved from demolition by the tireless efforts of the SALT (Save A Lido Today) campaign and reopened in 2007.
3. Portishead Open Air Pool, Somerset
The campaign to save Portishead lido received a boost from an unlikely source when a US TV makeover show helped to “flood the sight with resources”. That was in 2009; the volunteer-run pool has since been going strong since.
4. Buckfastleigh Open Air Pool, Devon
This heated lido has been running under community stewardship for five years, having been saved following a campaign to raise £300,000. Members of the group have gone on to work for the town’s ‘indie council’, which prides itself on ‘doing democracy differently’.
5. Brightlingsea Lido, Essex
A member of the Historic Pools of Britain, this 50m-long seaside pool was earmarked for closure in 2017 before a local volunteer group circled their wagons. It reopened in 2018 following a refurb and is now community run.
Main image: Paul Meyler