On the edge

Liquid Assets: the lidos and open air swimming pools of Britain

Janet Smith <em>English Heritage,

It is surprising how angry this book about open-air swimming pools leaves you. Or sad, depending on whether you believe that the lido was betrayed by unimaginative policy-makers, or was merely the victim of our individualistic times. Here, in one charmingly illustrated history, is the rise, fall and teetering survival of a movement that reached its apex in inter-war Britain. That there were once 300 of these quasi-socialist experiments in public leisure, and that there remain fewer than a hundred, reveals much about how our municipal culture has changed.

Although a few outdoor pools for the public were built in the Victorian era, it was in the 1920s and 1930s that the concept of the lido really took off. As Janet Smith writes: "By the early 1930s, open-air pools had become emblems of municipal mod-ernity and of faith in a brighter, more enlightened future, in much the same way as public libraries had become a generation or two earlier." The London County Council led the way: its leader Sir Herbert Morrison vowed to make London "a city of lidos", and promised that no one would have to travel more than a mile and a half to find one. The Second World War put paid to the latter aspiration but, even so, there were more than 60 open-air pools in Greater London by 1951.

During the 1930s, the lido movement swept Britain. At the opening of Morecambe's pool in 1936, Sir Josiah Stamp, director of the Bank of England, declared: "When we get down to swimming we get down to democracy." Anyone who has spent a summer's afternoon by the water's edge, dipping into a novel, eavesdropping on nearby conversations, observing family dynamics from afar and occasionally cooling off in the clear, cold water, will understand the communality to which Stamp was alluding.

Smith's scholarly narrative does not always do justice to the languor, exhila-ration and sense of occasion that lidos inspire. However, the extraordinary archive photographs certainly do. Especially evocative are the pictures of the super-lido at New Brighton, Merseyside, which was capable of housing 12,000 spectators. Opened in summer 1934, the pool had attracted nearly a million pay-ing customers by the end of its first summer, but by the 1980s annual attendance had fallen to 30,000. It was demolished in 1990 and the site is now wasteland.

Blame for the demise of lidos can be laid at various doors - cheap foreign holidays; the Wolfenden report of 1960 on sport in the community, which recommended the construction of leisure centres; Margaret Thatcher's compulsory competitive tendering and its Blairite successor, the Best Value regime. Part of this book's strength is that it does not gloss over the obstacles, chief among which are high maintenance costs and the fickleness of the British summer. (Penwith District Council estimates that every swim at Penzance's Jubilee Pool costs the ratepayer between £16 and £18).

But as Smith's impeccably researched elegy reveals, there are grounds for hope - both the Tooting Bec Lido in south London and Tinside in Plymouth have been admirably supported by their local councils. In an age of social atomisation and climate change, policy-makers would do well to pay attention to Liquid Assets, which suggests that lidos are as important to the life of a community as street cleaners, playgroups and youth clubs.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, President Hillary: can she do it?