Emma Pusill, co-author of The Lido Guide, on why lidos offer so much opportunity for their local communities
After what has felt like an interminable year of cyclical lockdowns, lidos were amongst the the first leisure facilities allowed to reopen in England as part of the government’s four-part roadmap to ease Covid restrictions. But it’s not just swimmers who are increasingly interested in these glorious, diverse places. There is increased coverage in the mainstream media and a growing awareness that lidos aren’t just indoor pools without a roof. They are unique, special and contribute so much to society, in so many different ways:
The architectural value of our lidos cannot be understated. We are all familiar with the distinctive Art Deco style of lidos such as Peterborough and the wedding cake fountain is little short of iconic. But Art Deco is not all the UK’s stock of lidos has to offer. The pavilion at Saltdean is, arguably, one of the UK’s finest remaining Streamline Moderne buildings and Cleveland Pools in Bath, now under restoration, features a Georgian cottage and changing cubicles set into a handsome crescent. Across the country lidos mark ever-changing architectural fashions and developing construction methods, in a unique and accessible way.
While the large-scale jamborees that once packed-out lidos such as the Morecambe Super Swimming Stadium are a thing of the past, lidos continue to be about so much more than just swimming. Artists such as Stu Watkin of Oshe Design create strikingly unique work inspired by lidos. Pells Pool has had successful residencies from both a writer and a painter, Hathersage pool features live music performed from its Victorian bandstand, Portishead hosts open air cinema screenings and Sandford Parks hosts concerts and theatrical performances on its lawns. Lidos have even made it onto prime-time TV, with the lidos of the UK being a specialist subject on Mastermind.
The health benefits of fresh air and exercise are well-known and lidos offer safe opportunities for both. Research carried out by the group campaigning to restore Tynemouth outdoor pool also found that lidos appeal to people who might feel intimidated by indoor pools. This suggests that lidos widen access to exercise. Lidos remain places where children can get exercise without even realising that’s what they’re doing as they repeatedly jump in and clamber out. With real concerns about how much time our young people spend looking at screens these opportunities are more important than ever. There are also now an increasing number of lidos offering cold-water swimming in the winter months, with many hardy swimmers reporting a huge boost to their mood and general wellbeing.
Lidos that are run by volunteers create communities within communities, providing valuable social contact for the volunteers – many of whom are retired. Regular swimmers form strong attachments to their local lido and relish the experiences they share with their fellow regulars. One such example is the early morning ‘Nutters Club’ at Topsham pool. Lidos also serve their communities in many and varied ways – such as hosting school galas, running water safety sessions, providing valuable employment and extending opportunities to people living with disabilities and complex needs.
Many lidos were lost because local authorities saw them as a burden, rather than an opportunity, but there is growing recognition that they can transform communities. Speaking at a House Of Commons event celebrating the launch of The Lido Guide, in 2019, then MP for Pontypridd Owen Smith told those present about the vital role that the restoration of Ponty Lido had played in the regeneration of the town. It led to increased high street trade, increased house prices and contributed to securing other major investment into the town. Encouragingly, other councils are beginning to wise up to these opportunities. The outdoor pool at Albert Avenue in Hull, closed to the public for 25 years, is being renovated to the tune of £4.6m. In Brighton, planning permission has been granted for what appears to be the UK’s only purpose built 50m outdoor pool. Sea Lanes, a commercially built and operated facility, will transform a near derelict part of the seafront and hugely contribute to the town’s leisure and tourism portfolio.
Each of those five areas where lidos add so much value to society could be expanded to an article in their own right, but even on the strength of that overview it is clear that we must cherish, preserve, restore and add to the UK’s lido portfolio. They are important from a heritage perspective, but they are also important for the future.
Emma Pusill is the co-author of The Lido Guide, a celebration of all publicly accessible open-air pools in the UK and Channel Islands