Yesterday it was my very great pleasure, and privilege, to bring 50 or so lido operators, campaigners, enthusiasts and swimmers to the House of Commons. We were there, at the invitation of Owen Smith MP, to discuss themes on the revival and survival of outdoor pools in the UK.
The Lido Guide was the vehicle that got us all into the room. I had met Owen at a Historic Pools event some time ago, at Lido Ponty. I'd mentioned the book, and he kindly asked to be kept updated. When I dropped him a line to let him know of the impending publication he offered to host us in Parliament to celebrate its publication; he is a keen swimmer, co-chair of the all party parliamentary group on swimming and as an MP with a successfully restored lido in his constituency he knows first hand the benefits these places hold for their communities. He proudly told the guests that Lido Ponty is now the second most important visitor attraction in Wales, and that it has played a fundamental role in securing other investment to develop the town. He's right to be proud, it is a marvellous facility and the commitment to continuing to operate it that Rhondda Cynon Taf council shows is remarkable, and inspiring at a time when many other local authorities are so resistant to resurrecting, sustaining and operating lidos. When one visits Lido Ponty it is easy to forget that it once looked like this...
It transpires that Owen and I went to secondary schools within about ten miles of one another, and within one school year of one another; we both remember that pool before it fell derelict. It's fair to say he was rather fonder of it than I was during our teenage years. But I am delighted to see the painstaking restoration, and the positive impacts on the town of Pontypridd that have followed on.
So given the link to Lido Ponty it was fitting that the theme for the day was not the book, but the positive impact that lidos have on their communities, and the need to revive them and help them to thrive.
The first speaker was Phil Bradby, Chair of Save Grange Lido. His presentation made the powerful point that councils must not look for what they think is an easy way out of the 'problem' that councils perceive lidos to be. There is no problem that local authorities perceive to be caused by their lido, to which a well run lido is not the solution. I was pleased to see Robin Ashcroft, of South Lakeland District Council, in the room - and he asked the intelligent question 'what does it take to run a successful lido?' I offered a one word answer - imagination. Within that are layered many things, and the other speakers and guests gave him a great deal of insight and offered practical examples. It encouraged me no end that he listened carefully and with good grace.
We then heard from Pam Barrett, of Buckfastleigh Open Air Pool and Andy Thatcher, of Portishead Open Air Pool. Two very different pools, both saved from councils keen to close them. They have different operational challenges, and talked about how they meet them and enrich the lives of their communities through offering affordable access to physical activity, as well as providing social cohesion through their volunteer base and commitment to serving local residents as well as visitors. When Pam talks about the transformational impact that pool has had on Buckfastleigh, a town with economic and social challenges, and its residents, it is always a moving experience. This pool runs on a financial knife edge, and when Pam, who is also a town councillor, asks the question 'can we afford to have this pool?' her answer is unequivocal... 'we can't afford NOT to have it'.
The afternoon was closed by Jenny Landreth, a swimmer and author who offered the swimmer's perspective, and Gill Wright from Historic Pools who gave the room a deeper understanding of the historic significance of some of their member pools. This organisation works tirelessly to promote and sustain the rich built heritage that is dedicated to swimmers. Their support for those pools, and for The Lido Guide, has been invaluable.
The passion in the room was palpable all afternoon. I am honoured to have been able to bring that to Parliament, and I hope the MPs who dropped by during the course of the afternoon will have been able to soak up some of that. I hope they'll take it back to their constituencies, particularly where they have lidos, and use it to get behind these wonderful places. They are the beating, aquatic hearts of communities. They grow confidence, connection and achievement both individually and collectively. They help us to be the best versions of ourselves. We can't afford NOT to have them.
I haven't said very much about Jenny Landreth's wonderful presentation - that is because she has given me her kind permission to reproduce it in full below. I doubt any swimmer reading it will fail to recognise something of themselves in it, and she perfectly brings to life the democracy of swimming in lidos. And she did so in the magnificent Jubilee Room, right at the heart of the Houses Of Parliament. Perfect marriage of words and place. Scroll down below the picture to read her speech in full.
I’m here today to represent an important constituency in any discussion about swimming - the swimmers. Particularly, the lido swimmers. And it doesn’t happen to me often, but I’m actually representative of the biggest community of lido swimmers - older women. This is a surprise twist - older women are generally the most invisible demographic, which, in truth, suits some of us very well, because while you’re not watching us, we’re up to all sorts of mischief. Actually, outdoor swimming, our fastest growing participation sport, is one of the few areas where women of all ages form the majority, and consistently outperform their male counterparts, particularly over long distances. We’ve got staying power, you see. Please don’t worry, I’m not here to terrify everyone with feminist tales of formidable old women. If that does happen, it’s entirely a bonus.
Swimming is just good exercise isn’t it? Good stress relief. What do lidos offer that you can’t get in nice, safe, regulated indoor pools where the experience is the same every time? Or what about wild swimming, in rivers, lakes and the sea? Isn’t that better? You don’t have to pay for that. The trouble is a) most of us don’t have access to swimmable rivers, and b) some of us - by which I mean me - don’t always have the courage or skills to plunge into a lake or the sea, alone. For me, lidos offer what we might call a ‘third way’ - a centrist position, perhaps, although I feel that might not be a position it would be wise to expand on, right now. Still, lidos are boundaried, protected spaces that give us the best of both worlds - all the best things about outdoor swimming without the risks, and with showers.
My motto is: we are all equal in a swimming cap. And I believe that there is nowhere more equal than a lido.
The idea that lidos are some kind of equal opportunity nirvana might surprise people who follow recent discussions. Journalist Ellie Mae O’Hagan wrote about her own experience of harassment at an indoor swimming pool and garnered a lot of response from other women. (Quite a lot of response from men too, obviously. Most of it using the words ‘men’, ‘not’ and ‘all’.) There were, in the responses to Ellie Mae’s article, a whole raft of examples of men behaving badly. (If you think I’m referring to those guys who butterfly up and down the lane, you’re absolutely right, I am. And the rest.) I went on Radio 4’s PM programme to talk about it, and it was suggested to me that life guards should monitor men’s pool behaviour. My response was that lifeguards were mostly young people on minimum wage, they really weren’t paid enough to save lives AND sort the patriarchy.
All of this sounds like a terrible set up, doesn’t it? How are lidos going to come out of it well? Well, there was a common theme in the comments on Ellie’s article. It was: ‘That doesn’t happen at my lido’. And here’s why I think that is:
It’s because lidos are different. Because they do something deliberatelythat indoor pools do NOT do. Two things actually. The first one is:
Lidos foster equality - they do it literally by design; they were established as the embodiment of democracy. (It feels so delightfully appropriate, saying that here.) Josiah Stamp, Governor of the Bank of England, said at the opening of the Morecambe Super Swimming Stadium in 1936: "When we get down to swimming, we get down to democracy."
What does that democracy look and feel like in a lido? Well, firstly, it doesn’t matter, in lidos, who you are. How old you are, what size, whether you’re male or female, young or old, how good a swimmer, what you earn. You can cycle up there on a solid gold tandem for all I care, because once you’re through the gates, money cannot buy you a better lido experience. That in itself is a massive equaliser. And you can’t tell by looking if someone is a good swimmer or not; you can’t judge their ability by age, size or gender. And in a lido, what constitutes being a ‘good’ swimmer changes - it might not be the swimmer perfectly executing their tumble turns or being the fastest. It might be the person swimming one width against the odds. Or the one encouraging someone else to get in. Or the one who is still there when it’s snowing. Nobody is there to judge, these are places where just getting in is the key.
They are places were none of the usual status signifiers matter.
And actually, being rid of signifiers benefits everyone. If you take off all your labels - mother, husband, colleague, benefactor, employer, employee - it’s incredibly liberating. It’s a kind of freedom. They did a road traffic experiment, around Kensington I think it was, and removed all the signage, all the instructional gubbins that clutters the urban landscape and people still managed to navigate the area perfectly successfully. Lidos absolutely remind me of that. We navigate our way with none of the usual instructional gubbins.
I say money doesn’t buy you a better lido experience - obviously you can own our own pool. But doing that means you’d miss out on the second great thing that lidos do - they create community.
Cross generational, cross-gender, cross-ability community. They do that, again, deliberately,by design. It’s inbuilt in the fabric of the place. Community is partof their purpose. Lidos encourage people to stay, to hang out, take up a bit of space. The shabby picnic benches, the sunbathing spots, the cafes, the communal showers, and so on. This is where a solitary activity can become a social one. You don’t see many people deciding to spend the afternoon lying reading their book at the side of the pool at Balham Leisure Centre do you? It’s not what they’re for. (And anyway, you’d probably get a horrible skin condition if you tried it.)
When you start to become a regular, when people say hello, when you have your preferred shower, your routines about getting into the water, when you’re recognised, when people sometimes get your name right - you’ve become part of a community, of swimmers. An egalitarian, respectful, non-judgemental community. A really key element of life is finding our tribe, finding ‘people like us’. Your lido tribe might share no othercommon factors with you, none at all, except that you’re all swimmers. (Unless you’re an older woman, of course. There’s quite a few of those.)
I don’t need to talk about the benefits of community. We all know it. That shared space, the feeling of belonging - it’s an inoculation against loneliness. You don’t haveto join in - this is not the PTA, they won’t make you sell raffle tickets as soon as you turn up. (Well, they might but just deal with it.) You don’t have to do anything at all actually, just be present. And being present, being in the moment, can be counter to everything else in our organised, over-scheduled lives. Being in the moment is a key part of meditation - and you get it in lidos AS A SIDE BENEFIT.
What else do swimmers get from lidos? There’s a lot been written about the benefits of being in nature, particularly to our mental health, and it’s very relevant to be talking about that now, when mental health provision is collapsing so drastically. It’s become fashionable to use terms like ‘forest bathing’ and ‘nature bathing’. I’m adding to that: ‘bathing bathing’. Being in the water outside can be magic. You might imagine there’s not much ‘nature’ to be had in such a ‘built environment’. You’d be wrong. You might not get the waves crashing over you heads, or the river swooshing you along, or the smell of the peaty lake. What you get instead in a lido are the small, everyday bits of nature that we can often miss, as our lives are so removed from a sense of the seasons changing, the year passing. There’s nature in the surrounding trees, and their leaves falling into the water. In the space above you. In the bugs you save. In the clouds going over the sun. In being swooped by a bird on the wing. In the temperature of the water, or its contrast to the air. In stripping off and letting the crispness or the mugginess of the day play on your skin. There’s so much joy to be found in that, and finding joy is like finding treasure.
There are wider benefits too: getting involved at a lido shows you the power of grassroots activism. Sharing a public resource and working together for that shared resource are the absolute antidote to pernicious individualism. And spending a day at a lido - having a holiday at home - produces no carbon footprint.
And of course, last but not least, there’s the exercise. Blah blah, the exercise. It’s often the last thing on a lido swimmer’s mind. Or maybe just mine.
Now, I might say ‘we’re all equal in a swimming cap’. But some people don’t get the opportunity to even put that swimming cap ON. Women had to fight for inclusion in the lido democracy, but it’s a fight that’s not concluded, for some.
We have work to do, on two fronts. Firstly, on disabled access. Because lots of lidos are historic buildings, often they fail to be as inclusive as they could be. Public money should be available for that. The second front is diversity. Lido communities often look very white. Because black and minority ethnic (BAME) people often don’t swim, for social, cultural and financial reasons, there are a lot of racist assumptions made that they can’tswim. We need to work to change that before yet another generation of BAME children are excluded from the lifetime benefits of lido swimming. I must shout out to SwimDem crew here, for their work in inclusion among young BAME communities. I see SwimDem all the time, popping up at the lidos of London with their groups, and it’s exactly the kind of grassroots activism we should be encouraging across the country.
I want to end on a positive note, and there are many to choose from, but I’ll talk about my own experience. My lido - and it is mine - is my spiritual home. I have solved a lot of problems in that water, cried a lot of tears and done huge amounts of laughing. I’ve meditated, I’ve bathed in nature, I’ve relieved stress, and of course, I’ve exercised. It’s where I feel most exactly like myself. And that’s an experience that should be extended to everyone.