Lorraine Child: Still waters run deep
PUBLISHED: 12:38 11 May 2020 | UPDATED: 12:38 11 May 2020
(c) George Marks
‘I didn’t like swimming with the tide. My idea of swimming is that I move, the water doesn’t’
Along with the ancients and the Bloomsberries, I have always thought it odd that we wear clothes when swimming, like wearing socks in the bath. Something to do with that delicate virtue modesty, I presume. My love of the sight, sound and smell of the sea is buried deep; to hear a single gull is to be a child again, transported to dramatic Cornish coasts for holidays of unfettered freedom.
Except I didn’t like swimming with the tide. Fearless water-babes would leap into the briny without even a tentative toe-dip; I stood shivering blue-cold on the shoreline, skinny legs mottled calamine pink, ruched costume crumpled and stiff like some changeling dragonfly. So I busied myself in rock pools with gentle pursuits, such as annoying hermit crabs and hunting for bladder wrack. My idea of swimming is that I move, the water doesn’t.
Back in the 1990s, we booked a few days at a 16th-century Cotswold manor house for relaxation, good food and, fortuitously, its outdoor pool. Reception had omitted to inform us that a wedding party and their marquees were in residence, so the dining room was closed. Sitting in a high-ceilinged baronial hall with the other two uninformed guests felt somewhat lonely, but exclusive, the sort of place where one might order larks’ tongues with a side of lampreys. A waiter appeared from behind a tapestried hanging, Mr Ben-like; chef would rustle up something tasty. Fifty minutes is a long time to spend rearranging a cruet, but the rustling eventually produced… soup. Tomato and – we could hardly contain ourselves at this point – basil soup. We checked out the next morning, and driving away, I’m sure I saw a veil doing lengths.
Swimming for fitness became popular in the 1920s and 30s when government policies to improve the nation’s health emphasised fresh air and exercise, resulting in building programmes for open-air pools, or lidos. Designed on modernist principles in Art Deco style, they were promoted with images of lithe, athletic types and pale-complexioned beauties rouged with a faint blush, like faded bath salts. My favourite, Bude Sea Pool in Cornwall, built in the 1930s, has a more naturalistic setting, cradled into the curve of rocky cliffs and filled with seawater from incoming tides. Measuring 91 x 45 metres, it is part of the landscape; of the sea, but not in it, overlooking the bracing waters of the Atlantic.
Lido, the Italian for shore, sounded rather racy and many people considered the idea scandalous, a hang-up from Victorian days when men and women were segregated; mixed bathing and hot sunshine would simply encourage licentious behaviour. In the earliest pools, water was replaced only once a week, getting grimier with the number of bathers, reminiscent of tin bath tales, but better hygiene practices later included the use of that scented skin improver, chlorine.
On May 25, 1935, Sandford Parks Lido in Cheltenham was opened by the Mayor, E.L. Ward. Though the original plan was to use the land for allotments; local councillors were clearly more enthusiastic about the benefits of brassicas than outdoor swimming. One of the attractions of the 50-metre pool was that the water was filtered, purified and aerated, and never less than 70° Fahrenheit. The Mayoress effortlessly started the aerating fountain by pressing a button, an operation that apparently had an engineer wrestling behind the scenes opening hefty valves.
Over the years, this lovely pool, set in landscaped parkland, has faced closure, but local residents campaigned hard for its survival; it has since been refurbished and is currently run by a charitable trust. Now a listed building, the original turnstiles and a ticket booth survive, as does the café, though remodelled.
Droitwich Spa in Worcestershire retains its original building from 1935, the open-air, salt-water pool set at 23°C. A youngster by comparison, The Lido in Chipping Norton was built in 1970, and has had hearty support from locals and fund-raising campaigners ever since to keep it going. Cirencester’s Victorian open-air pool is a hidden gem, filled with spring water heated to a balmy 27°C, with Cecily Hill Barracks of 1857, crenellated and proud, standing to attention in the background.
Open-air swimming, sans tides, feels liberating, though my sleek agility in the water is comparable to that of a tall sideboard. So many lidos fell victim to cheap foreign travel, but the surviving Art Deco pools evoke a more elegant, sophisticated age, and if a perfectly waxed moustache, attached to a fastidious little Belgian, were to float past you, it would seem the most normal thing in the world. Peut-être.