The joys of Lidos
The joy of lidos: why more of us are moving near outdoor pools
27 APRIL 2018 • 2:26PM Conceived as therapeutic places for war-ravaged town dwellers in the post-war era, lidos have had mixed fortunes in recent years. Some of these elegantly designed open-air swimming pools have remained vibrant hubs of the local community while others have been lost forever, unloved and unfunded.
But it seems lidos are back in fashion, with their newfound chicness highlighted in a novel by avid outdoor swimmer Libby Page, published this week.
The “most talked-about novel of 2018”, complete with a film deal, The Lido focuses on a woman who lives in an apartment overlooking Brockwell Lido in south-east London, and a community that comes together when it is faced with the lido’s imminent closure.
It’s a scenario that has been played out across many of the nation’s lidos, yet there’s plenty of evidence to suggest these open-air pools really do enrich the lives of residents and engender unlikely alliances between folks of all ages.
“The London Fields Lido is a great success story and draws many people to its unique east London neighbourhood,” says Nicola Almond of local agent Currell.
“The lido, petanque court and al fresco table tennis offer a quirky feel that are in keeping with the eclectic mix of properties and people in London Fields. It really is part of the appeal for some home buyers.”
One of those buyers was Emma Pusill, an avid user of the retro lido in Portishead, Somerset. “I moved into Portishead just to be near the pool,” she says. “I love the sheer joy and abandon of swimming outdoors, and the beauty of the sunshine through the water, the companionable solitude of the swim and the feeling of not being constrained by a roof.”
Most lidos are on a shoestring budget as local authorities have divested responsibility for running them, and they are kept afloat by local volunteers and fundraising Pusill’s passion extends to co-writing the first definitive guide to the UK’s lidos, to be published next year through the book crowdfunding website Unbound.
“Most lidos are on a shoestring budget as local authorities have divested responsibility for running them, and they are kept afloat by local volunteers and fundraising. Creating footfall is essential in keeping them going, and our guide is aimed at making them easy to find. There are many fantastic lidos that people are simply not aware of,” she says.
There are around 115 lidos in the UK – a figure that ebbs and flows. Apart from the “grand old lady” iconic art deco lidos of Cheltenham, Plymouth and Peterborough, Pusill has a soft spot for the little pool at Buckfastleigh in Devon that is currently being revived (as is the glorious Grade II* listed Streamline Moderne-style Saltdean lido, if funding is achieved) and the “shabby informality” of London’s Parliament Hill.
The 40m Saltdean public lido reopened in 2017. Peckham Lido, in a now-gentrified patch of south-east London, is another example of a pool that locals are seeking to bring back to life. It became derelict and was closed down in 1987, but last year the community raised £63,000, with locals such as McMafia actor James Norton contributing.
Chic extras can also give tired lidos a new life – as can be seen at the destination restaurant and bar at the re-opened Bristol Lido, which sits among the Georgian terraces of fashionable Clifton. The same team has also recently reopened the disused King’s Meadow swimming pool, first opened in 1902, near the Thames in Reading. After three years of restoration work, the renamed Thames Lido now has a heated pool and spa facilities.
Are we seeing another golden age for lidos? There have been two already, according to Pusill. “In the Thirties era of austerity, many were built for public health; then in the Sixties more were built, when brick and block built examples came in,” she says.
Certainly, a century ago, the term lido – which derives from the Italian for shore or beach – suggested cachet and modernity.
But older ones are still very much in vogue, like Pells Pool in Lewes, East Sussex, which at 158 years old is the longest continually open lido in the UK and is fed by an underground spring. It was saved from closure by a campaign in the Nineties by locals, led by families who have fond memories of the lido.
Local consultant Sam Knowles uses it to kick-start the day. “If the lido wasn’t here, life in the town wouldn’t be quite as fantastic,” he says. “The Midsummer Madness event, with barbecue, pool stunts and fireworks, is an annual highlight.”
Clearly many people concur, and the increasing popularity of outdoor cold-water swimming and triathlon events has increased visitors, according to Rob Read of the Pells Pool Community Association, which runs the lido.
In an age of increasing loneliness, lidos can play a role (a theme of Page’s book). Another pool with great community engagement is Jesus Green Lido, on the edge of the river Cam in Cambridge.
Portishead Lido At 100yd long, it is the longest in Europe. The pool, which was built in 1923, still operates the old-school system of giving users a clothes basket with a number when they use the original wooden changing huts. Many residents use it every day.
Only reached by bike or by foot, it sits in a beautiful location, tucked away behind trees and away from exhaust fumes. Families also like living a short walk from the lido, in the prime residential roads nearby, says Hugh Blake of estate agent Carter Jonas. “Favourite roads are St John’s Road, Chesterton Road and Park Parade. In the latter the Edwardian four-bedroom houses overlooking Jesus Green cost around £1.5 million.”
Ilkley lido, an impressive art deco mushroom-shaped pool, sits against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Dales. It is used by Channel swimmers and our most famous triathletes, the Brownlee brothers.
The 49yd-long pool attracts as many as 5,000 picnickers on a sunny day, when it shimmers magically, and community group the Friends of Ilkley Lido works hard to improve it, says its chairman, Davy Simpson, who is himself a keen triathlete.
“It has a short season, from May to September, so we increase usage by having twilight and early-morning swims for commuters, and an annual solstice swim when we had 180 people queuing up at 4.45am to see the sun rise over the water,” he says.
A development near London Fields Lido, where property is on the market with Currell A development near London Fields Lido, where property is on the market with Currell Many of the London lidos stay open all year, including the popular Tooting Bec in south London, London Fields in Hackney, and Parliament Hill near Hampstead. Brave souls can swim in freezing weather – after breaking the ice.
Photographer Lisa Bretherick, 37, uses her local lido, Brockwell in south-east London, all year round, and trains with the Windrush Triathlon Club. The lido, built in the Thirties and set within Brockwell Park, was closed in 1990 but was reopened refurbished after a local campaign.
“Winter or summer it’s pure pleasure, and a great way to appreciate the change in the seasons,” she says. “It’s a great levelling experience as you all shower together and hang out in the sauna.”
Bretherick deliberately chose to live a five-minute cycle ride from the lido. But does it really attract many buyers to the vicinity?
“Herne Hill is very popular with families for the good schools, its transport links and also Brockwell Park is a big draw, and the lido is part of it,” says Mark Hustwit of local agent Marsh & Parsons. “It’s a definite plus for the locals.”