Lido life

Ken Worpole
9 March 2006

A conference is being held in the Clerkenwell area of London on 16 March 2006 – five minutes' walk from openDemocracy's office, as it happens – to discuss the revival of Britain's lidos and open-air swimming pools. Once thought doomed to extinction by the rise of the private gym, people are rediscovering the pleasure of swimming outdoors in the city, surrounded by greenery and the noise of people congregating and enjoying themselves, often exuberantly (not the sort of thing you'd find down at the corporate health club). Lucy Blakstad's award-winning documentary, Lido, filmed over summer 1995 at Brockwell Park (now Evian) Lido, reminded people just how cosmopolitan and sensuous were the pleasures of the city beach and pool.

In summer 2006 the once derelict London Fields Lido in Hackney is opening again, after years of campaigning, and now other London lidos are drawing up conservation and refurbishment plans. Tooting Bec Lido celebrates its centenary this year too, following a £500,000 facelift.

Ken Worpole is an author and policy advisor. Among his books are Here Comes the Sun: Architecture and Public Space in 20th Century European Culture (Reaktion Books, 2000), Last Landscapes: the Architecture of the Cemetery in the West (Reaktion Books, 2003). His website is at www.worpole.net

Ken Worpole's writing on openDemocracy includes:

"Stockholm Woodland Cemetery"
(January 2003)

"Essex shores, Essex lives"
(September 2003)

"The world's first environmental blogger" (August 2005) – on Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selbourne

"Living on water" (December 2005)

"Aldo van Eyck, The Playgrounds and the City" (February 2006)

Club members there have spearheaded this renewal in the fortunes of open-air swimming in Britain, and in January 2006 hosted the first international cold-water swimming championships (cold-water swimming is strictly for the hard core of the open-air brigade). Part of this story is told in Liquid Assets: the lidos and open air swimming pools of Britain (English Heritage/Malavan Media, 2005) by Janet Smith, a Tooting Bec regular. This engaging history is full of wonderful photographs which evoke the glamour and popular appeal of lidos in the age of art deco, when streamlined aesthetics made an instant hit with popular taste.

The city lido was one of the great innovations of the period in architectural history when politics and design (and a pronounced sense of the public good) came together. Early 20th-century modernism – especially in the Netherlands and Scandinavia – developed and espoused a whole series of new building types principally designed in the interests of public health and well-being: kindergarten, open-air schools, sanatoria, health centres and clinics with their own gymnasia, sports parks, lidos. This was the moment of "the social-democratic sublime".

Fresh air, sunshine, and opportunities for outdoor play and recreation were the driving principles at work, and of all these new building types, it was the lido which came to represent the pinnacle of the new culture. Most lidos created in Britain in the 1930s actually grew out of public-works programmes for the unemployed, and turned public duty into public pleasure. They were a far cry from the previous style of municipal baths, which often had segregated areas of the pool for men and women, and were organised and managed with factory discipline. Lidos represented a triumph of the stylish and the carefree with their sensuous lines and curves and the use of cool whites and blues in their materials and decor.

This really was sex in the city. The cult of the Cote D'Azur was brought to Mersey, Manchester and Mile End.

From moralism to pleasure

The revival of interest in the lido is a reminder of those older appreciations of public pleasure and well-being, and clearly represents a political challenge to the overly commercialised fitness culture now symbolised by the private pool or gym. It also offers a rebuff to the current Olympics cult, which seems now to be wholly based on winning medals at any cost. While the British government will find any amount of money to fund its 2012 Olympics plans (including diverting lottery money away from other worthier causes), there is still too little being spent on the generality of public parks and open-air recreational facilities where most people get their enjoyment – and which were the focus of that 1930s commitment to public wellbeing.

Sports policy in Britain is increasingly focused on winning medals in international events in the interests of national prestige (the government has secretly set its sports agencies a target of being the fourth-ranking medal winner in 2012), rather than on providing opportunities for sports and recreation in attractive settings for everybody. What happened to the "ministry of fun"?

For more on the lido and the wider architectural culture of open-air modernism, see Ken Worpole's book Here Comes the Sun: Architecture and Public Space in Twentieth-Century European Culture (Reaktion Books, 2000)

Happily the new lidos will have many advantages over their 1930s predecessors. The water will be heated, and some will be designed to provide a retractable roof during the winter months so that they can be used all year round. There really is no pleasure comparable to swimming at the heart of a busy London park in the middle of summer, with the sky overhead and the branches of the perimeter trees swaying in the breeze above one's head. Plus the smell of fried onions and the noise of children screaming – it all makes for a daily dose of the carnivalesque.

The lido in winter will no longer be just for the hardy, though cold-water swimming will retain its acolytes and martyrs. Christmas Day swims are still popular around the coast of Britain, but the best-known one takes place at the Serpentine Lido, where the Peter Pan Cup – donated by JM Barrie in 1904 – is awarded annually to the winner of a 100-yard dash.

One veteran, who has swum at both the Serpentine and Tooting Bec lidos almost every Christmas Day for fifty-five years, is Cyril Wood, now in his 80s. In fact a lot of cold-water swimmers seem of advanced years, which either says something for the health benefits of cold water, or for natural selection.

With luck the return of the lido will mark a turn in the fortunes of public-health policy, from one based on moralism to one based on pleasure – and to the democratic virtues of life en plein air. The time has come to make a bonfire of the exercise machines, and a rediscovery of the pleasure of an evening swim under the stars.

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