The Times

5 August 2003

T2 / Arts / Architecture

It's summer: take me to your lido

by Tom Dyckhoff

Our grandparents could swim at any of the hundreds of open-air lidos in 1930s Britain. Few remain, but some are at last being restored.

BRITAIN MAY BE roasting in a heatwave this week, but the day I visit Tinside Lido there’s just me and a few hardy souls in kagouls braving the Plymouth seafront. Still, this is quite a place. The lido, a semicircular saucer of fresh blue and white stripes, perches with astonishing grandeur beneath the cliff at the southernmost tip of the Hoe, resting on crags which thrust out into Plymouth Sound. Ships pass on nearly every side. Standing on its terraces, lashed with rain, you feel jolly elemental, as if dangling on a string halfway between sea and land.

Next week, Tinside opens to the public for the first time in more than a decade. This is something of a miracle. The lido — which embraced the exotic by adopting the Italian word for an open-air swimming place — is now practically extinct. In its pre-Sixties heyday we had hundreds. By 1991, just 120 remained; now there are fewer than 50. They were made obsolete when cheap package hols started in the Costas. The 1980s finished them off. Left over from an era when governments and councils thought that supplying citizens with health and happiness was not a luxury, lidos found themselves bracketed with libraries and playing fields as one more cost to cut. The British summer being what it is, they rarely turn a profit alone, and the land can be so much more profitable if sold off. Once a lido closes, it becomes harder to reopen: the fabric deteriorates, the water stagnates, people forget how ravishing it once was. It becomes that much easier to demolish.

But the Tinside Action Group never forgot its lido’s 1930s glamour. This bunch of local enthusiasts kept Tinside a hot political topic for years, as the city council, swinging from Labour to Tory to Labour, ummed and ahhed.

“It’s consumed five years of my life,” says Kevin Kelway, of the action group, who drummed up support from anyone from the Prince of Wales to Margaret Thatcher. Finally, he says, “the council said, ‘If we save the pool will you shut up?’” And so they did. There’s no tougher heritage nut than a lido nut. These people get up at 7am in January to go swimming in unheated pools. They’re hard as nails.

Lidos inspire devotion, says Janet Smith, historian of Tooting Bec Lido, South London. “I’ve seen people transformed in here. The exhilaration you get when you leave the water and your circulation pumps round your body trying to catch up! People get quite hooked. It’s an addiction. I’ve got it. I’d never leave Tooting. There’s no question of moving away from the pool.”

Every lido is bolstered by a network of these enthusiasts, who eschew fancy wave machines and fluffy towels for the simpler appeal of the open air. Naturally, they have an excellent website — www.lidos.org.uk, set up by Oliver Merrington, a three-times-a-week man from Cambridge — and figureheads such as Julie Burchill, one-woman apologist for Saltdean Lido, near Brighton, “the most perfect place on earth,” she says. And their defenders.

The Twentieth Century Society has campaigned to protect lidos since the destruction of a glorious arched listed diving platform in Weston-super-Mare. The Jubilee Pool in Penzance was the first lido to be listed in 1993, five more have followed, including Tinside in 1998 and, last month, Brockwell Lido in South London.

The lido appeals to a very British sensibility, thinks Ken Worpole, author of Here Comes the Sun, a history of modernism and the great outdoors. “There’s something very British about our clinging to the open-air life even when it’s wet and cold.”

Nothing symbolises our cheerful Ealing-comedy optimism better than that unflinching faith that the sun will always come out, if only for a second. “Outdoor swimming is most revered in north European countries like Sweden and Finland. It’s something to do with subjecting the body to pleasure and pain.”

The pain is obvious. The pleasure comes from “a freedom uncontaminated by consumerism and bureaucracy”, Worpole says, those precious moments when it’s just you, the sunlight, the water (or rain) and a few ducks.

In lidos, the hedonist and the puritan meet in one big happy splash. For the paternalist councils who built them, mostly in the Thirties, they were a cunning way to soak up unemployment, and give citizens something healthy and self-improving to do in their spare time. The first proper research into the benefits of exercise, sunlight and the open air led to the 1937 Physical Training and Recreation Act, following model programmes in Germany and Italy, where Mussolini’s Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro had organised leisure activities to improve national health and efficiency.

For the public, though, it was funtime. The Thirties was the decade of the holiday camp, the chalet, the rambler, Blue Guide jaunts and sunbathing. With shorter working hours and paid holidays, we’d never had so much free time. Photos from Tinside’s heyday show swarms of people clinging to every terrace, sailors with their girlfriends in their Sunday best, kids, grannies, mums and dads. One night during the Second World War, 3,000 tickets were sold to locals exhausted from clearing the rubble after the bombs. It’s easy to forget now how thrilling they once were. Like the cinema, the lido was a place to fantasise: it turned Scarborough into St Tropez. Parliament Hill Lido was opened by the movie star Tyrone Power. Lidos were sexy, glamorous and distinctly unBritish. You went there to catch a saucy glimpse of the bodies beautiful in shapely swimsuits.

Architecture was all part of the package. Most council architects sought the modish glamour of Art Deco-ish modern, the exotic style of cruise liners or Hollywood, and the glorious 1929 Piscine Molitor in Paris. It reached its peak with the embracing arms of Saltdean Lido, and Jubilee Pool in Penzance, curved, it was said, like a seagull on the water. But the scrubbed-up Tinside can show them a thing or two: a staircase of smart blue, red, black and cream ceramic tiles and brass and copper handrails guides you from the clifftop, past a rooftop sun terrace and the Tinside Diver, a graceful arc of a diver etched into glass, to a ground-floor unisex changing room and then out onto the pool, 180ft wide, painted with blue and white stripes, and churned by three fountains which funnel the water in jets and mushrooms. At night the lido was built to glow with three-colour floodlights. The restored lido has 14 million colour variations and fibreoptic cables in the fountains.

A restored lido is a rare thing. A council financing it is rarer still. This was a big job — a new concrete pool floor has been sunk into the bedrock — worsened by the logistics of getting materials to the cliff-bottom site.

Plymouth managed to raise the £4 million by including the lido in a programme to revive Plymouth’s whole foreshore, levering regeneration funds that wouldn’t be available to a lido alone. A canny move. A built-in restaurant will bring in income during the winter.

Tinside may even mark a lido comeback. Lambeth Council secured a 25-year lease for Brockwell last month; Parliament Hill Lido is embarking on a restoration; while in East London, locals and the council are working on the revival of London Fields Lido. Many, though, are still being demolished; last month the South Bay Pool in Scarborough became the latest.

When Lambeth Council pulled the plug on it in 1994, the Brockwell Lido in South London was rescued and run by Paddy Castledine and his partner, Casey McGlue. When the sun shines all is well. Last weekend, 5,000 visited. But Brockwell rarely breaks even, unless there’s a spectacularly hot summer.

The pair had to be entrepreneurial, even sealing a £100,000-a-year sponsorship deal with Evian, whose logo is painted on the bottom of the pool. After a final bail-out to get it through the last summer, Lambeth has just signed a 25-year contract with Fusion, a not-for-profit sports group, which has promised local enthusiasts like the Brockwell Lido Users Group that it will invest £2.25 million to upgrade the newly grade II-listed pool.

Councils can’t just blame poverty for letting lidos close. That’s lazy. On the Continent, where spa culture is more firmly entrenched, outdoor pools such as the Olympic in Helsinki or the Strandbad Wannsee in Berlin throng all year round. Lidos may be expensive, but surely in our new global-warming, leisure economy there’s room for them to make a comeback.

GREAT OUTDOORS TOP 10

Parliament Hill Lido, London NW5.
Classic 1930s municipal glamour, with a 60m pool and fountain.

Serpentine Lido, London W2.
Built in 1929, with elegant colonnades and grass verges. Expect lots of geese and ducks for company.

Tooting Bec Lido, London SW16.
The capital’s oldest in London, built in 1906, and still in good nick with bright primary-coloured changing huts.

Brockwell Lido, London SE24.
Brixton’s beach, and South London’s Miami! Whatever. perhaps London’s the most popular London lido, with a great events programme (floodlit swimming, barbecues, etc).

Hampton Open Air Pool, southwest London.
Built in 1922, this one was saved by locals back in the 1980s, when the council was on the brink of demolishing it again. Heated!

Guildford Lido, Surrey.
A heated 1933 pool, surrounded by elegant landscaped gardens. and pergolas.

Jesus Green Lido, Cambridge.
At 90m long one of the longest in Europe. Surrounded by trees and 1960s timber changing rooms.

Jubilee Pool, Penzance.
Grade II listed lido, built in 1935 by Captain F Latham; its triangular design at the water’s edge rivals Tinside for location.

Saltdean Lido, Brighton.
A grade II-listed Deco masterpiece, designed by Richard Jones. Restored in the late 1990s after years of dereliction.

Stonehaven Open Air Swimming Pool, Aberdeenshire.
Heated sea water! Good job, too, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Built in 1934, and Olympic sized.

Copyright 2003, Times Newspapers Ltd.


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