Attempt to book a last-minute slot at one of London’s beloved lidos and it will affirm what we already knew. Urban outdoor swimming is back – and in a big way.
When it reopened at the end of March after a long, lido-less winter, over 400 swimmers a day flocked to Tooting Bec Lido. Water temperatures were struggling to top 10 degrees, but that didn’t deter this hardy crowd, many of whom had discovered the delights of a daily dip as an alternative to a plod around the park that had long lost its shine.
Seasoned swimmers, meanwhile, had mourned the absence of a precious local resource, and those with faith in the antibacterial qualities of chlorine were raring to return to the water.
Though lockdown has proven the great accelerator, the urban swimming renaissance is no splash in the pan.
A flurry of lido restoration projects up and down the country is clue enough that town and city dwellers are taking the plunge in ever increasing numbers. So far saved from the wrecking ball are sites like the striking art deco Saltdean Lido in Brighton, the Thames Lido in Reading and South Wales’ Ponty Lido, with its 1920s turnstiles and wooden cubicles.
Set to join them next summer are Hull’s restored Albert Avenue Baths and Brighton’s Sea Lanes, a new development on the seafront. Cumbria’s Grange Lido has just been granted the green light, while the team behind The People’s Pool in Liverpool – a city that once had 11 open-air pools – is busy finalising proposals.
Few projects have captured the imagination of the community quite like Cleveland Pools in Bath, which at over 200 years old is Britain’s earliest example. ‘We’re excited to be part of this growing movement,’ says project director Anna Baker.
Opened in 1815, its curved façade calls to mind another Georgian icon: The Royal Crescent. The revival is testament to the tenacity of a local trio and their 17-year campaign to save the Grade II-listed site after it was closed in 1984 and later added to Historic England’s ‘Heritage at Risk’ register.
‘The pools were at a very real threat of being lost forever,’ explains Baker. ‘Hundreds of volunteers rallied together to protect the site. This is a facility for the community, by the community.’
So why did our once-loved lidos disappear? ‘Indoor pools, leisure centres and cheaper foreign holidays,’ says journalist and author Christopher Beanland, whose recent book Lido dives into the history of the world’s most beautiful swimming spots. He also points to changing social trends at war with wellness – ‘cigs, booze and cars, anyone?’ – and decisions forced by council funding cuts.
Now, canny communities are safeguarding their locals – take Penzance’s Jubilee Pool, with its new geothermal seawater section, which is owned by 1,400 local shareholders and run as a social enterprise.
It’s no coincidence that hip country hotel Birch, which arrived in Hertfordshire last summer and prides itself on a communal atmosphere, has recently opened a lido. Tiled in ice cream tones, it feels faintly retro – a nod, perhaps, to lidos’ 1930s heyday.
Shiny new housing projects, too, are integrating outdoor pools into their plans, like the dizzying new ‘floating’ Sky Pool at London’s Nine Elms, or the lido at Manchester’s upcoming Cotton Quay development in Salford, which will add 1,500 homes to the city’s docklands.
Others are lidos in name only. London’s Serpentine Lido, home to the oldest swimming club in Britain and more than a few ducks, looks suspiciously like a lake. Casual swimmers will be reassured by the delineated boundary, but the frisson in this step towards wild swimming is half the fun.
So, too, a dip in Hackney’s West Reservoir, or a chance to take in the tranquillity of Hampstead Heath’s Swimming Ponds. Clevedon Marine Lake, with its tidal infinity pool that directly overlooks the Bristol Channel, offers a similar sense of integration with nature.
It’s hard not to feel roused by the steely determination of architecture practice Studio Octopi and its vision for Thames Baths, a filtered pool in the River Thames, which harks back to various floating baths that dotted the waterway in the Victorian era. The manifesto for the almost decade-long campaign, which has high-profile backers such as Tracey Emin, is a rallying cry for greater claim over the capital’s largest public space.
‘It is our belief that it is every Londoner’s right to liberate themselves by swimming in the Thames.’ Don’t underestimate our appetite for wading into uncharted waters.