Swim Magazine

Why are Britain’s lidos making a comeback?

Public enthusiasm for outdoor swimming means the lido scene is thriving. 2023 will see three major outdoor pools open to the public, at a time when many indoor pools are struggling with the energy crisis. Swim turned to lido expert Christopher Beanland, author of Lido: A Dip Into Outdoor Swimming Pools, about why outdoor pools are so popular and so important as a community asset.

Words: Lydia Paleschi
Picture: RIBA

How lidos helped to create a more democratic Britain

In the 19th century, most Britons couldn’t swim. Swimming, like most leisure activities, was the privilege of the gentry. For most of society, harsh working conditions in the Victorian era meant leisure time was largely limited; and although there were communal bath houses around at the time, their purpose was very different.

As time progressed, Britain emerged from the First World War and moved towards a ‘new, modern, democratic world’ where ‘things would be for the people’, says Christopher. As working conditions improved, there was a significant expansion in the pursuit of healthy open-air recreation among the young, urban, working and lower-middle classes.

At the height of their popularity in the late 1930s, there were around 300 lidos in Britain and many of them survived the Second World War. However, Christopher says that as society continued to change and cars became the ‘modern way of doing things’ in the 60s and 70s, so began the ‘decline in seaside resorts and seaside lidos’.

Health, community and contact with nature – what lidos can bring to modern Britain

While some fell into disrepair, others were demolished, and by the start of the 1990s two-thirds of them were gone. With the only 90 remaining lidos under threat, it wasn’t until 1999 that they were finally thrown a lifeline. In his classic swimming book Waterlog, nature writer Roger Deakin reminded people of the ‘special sense of freedom’ that can be found from swimming in them, arguably kickstarting the modern outdoor swimming movement. Simultaneously, The Twentieth Century Society – a charity which campaigns to save Britain’s architectural heritage – published Farewell My Lido to draw attention to the demise of Britain’s once-loved lido architecture. Consequently, Christopher says, people were beginning to see that the closure of lidos in Britain was ‘a huge mistake’.

‘Now every town wants a lido,’ Christopher says. They’re ‘a true democratic public space and an incredible asset’, he says, revealing that he swims, socialises and often works at them.

Spurred on by The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s contribution of almost £7 million, this summer will see Britain’s oldest lido – Bath’s Cleveland Pools – fully reopen after a hard-fought campaign that lasted two decades.

However, government funding remains scarce, as does that from bodies such as Swim England, which tends to focus its resources on the maintenance of indoor pools. Any decline in public passion for outdoor swimming will mean the future of these beloved pools is once again imperilled.