When I think of my grandfather, I picture him standing in his trunks, arms stretched above his head, teaching my school friend to dive. A former naval recruit, he loved spending time in the water when he visited us at home in Edinburgh. In his own town of Grange-over-Sands in Cumbria, he had nowhere to swim.
The old Grange Lido was hard to miss, a giant barnacle on the side of the promenade that divided the town from the wilds of Morecambe Bay. Built in 1932 in the art deco style, it trapped the seawater and tamed it. But after high tides breached its walls in 1977, the money to maintain the lido began to run out and local swimmers retreated to indoor pools. In 1993 its doors were locked for good. For decades, if you found a crack in the boards that surrounded it, you glimpsed the sky reflected in the rainwater that filled the pool.
Grange Lido is one of only a handful of surviving seaside lidos in England today, along with those in Penzance, Saltdean, Margate and Plymouth. There used to be hundreds. In the 1940s and 1950s, in the coastal resorts of Southport, Blackpool and Morecambe, lidos were temples to youthful beauty, hosting “Miss Lovely Legs” competitions and synchronised somersaults, alongside bracing sea swims.
Lidos proved no match for the European package holiday, whose popularity gathered pace in the 1970s. As flights to Spain became cheaper, the seaside pools emptied. Margate’s was filled with sand in 1978. Hastings’s was demolished in 1993, the rubble recycled for a sea wall. New Brighton’s went down fighting: in 1984 its giant, shell-shaped arena still had enough glamour to lure Spandau Ballet and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. But six years after Holly Johnson performed “Relax” by the side of the pool, a storm destroyed the sea barricades and ended a council dilemma: a Morrisons now stands in its place.
In Grange-over-Sands, no one got around to demolishing the lido, even after the tides had shifted and the marsh grass began to grow around it. It became something unwanted in an otherwise sedate retirement town. But some never gave up on the dream of swimming there again. Less than ten years after Grange lost its pool, a group of residents began campaigning for a new one.
Swimming pools, especially new ones, have long reflected a community’s priorities. In 1815 a group of wealthy Bath citizens diverted the River Avon to open Cleveland Pools, a bathing house where they could take cold-water dips in private. The 1846 Baths and Washhouses Act was an attempt to scrub Britain’s coal-encrusted proletariat clean. Victorian swimming pools also housed baths and laundries; the last public bath in Edinburgh was open for an entry price of £1.70 until 2019, when it was permanently closed as part of renovation plans.
Opening Morecambe’s Super Swimming Stadium in 1936, the industrialist Josiah Stamp described the lido as “the last word in modernity”, adding: “When we get down to swimming, we get down to democracy.” In the stadium’s changing rooms, holidaymakers stripped off any markers of class, the usual social hierarchies dissolving in the water.
[See also: Ten years of Swimming Home]
Pool-building accelerated in the later 20th century, reaching a total of 4,540 in England by 2009. But since then, their numbers have begun to recede; in 2021 a report by Swim England forecast that the number of pools could decline by 40 per cent by the end of this decade. In February 2023, a year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent energy prices spiralling, Community Leisure UK, which represents 880 operators, warned that half the country’s pools faced cuts or closure. “For generations, we’ve taken for granted that we all have easy access to a local pool, where we can learn to swim, exercise and socialise,” said Peter Bundey, CEO of GLL, the UK’s largest public leisure-centre operator. “That may not be the case for much longer.”
The world of the pool has the safe, consistent tang of chlorine. The water is not murky with weeds, but clear as a summer sky and contained in perfect mathematical proportions. You can’t get lost; if you find yourself briefly out of your depth, the ladder is waiting for you. Above it all sits the lifeguard.
As several Grange residents and campaigners pointed out to me, Morecambe Bay is no substitute. A sand plain measuring 120 square miles, it is swiftly gobbled by tides; in 2004, at least 21 Chinese cockle pickers who had been trafficked into the country died after becoming trapped on the sands.
Mary Ann Harris, founder of the local paper Grange Now, is among those who supported the residents’ campaign in the late 1990s. Growing up in Cumbria in the 1960s, she loved swimming; the first time she visited Grange was to try out the pool. “It was friendly, there were other young people,” she remembered. “It is not the same for young people now.”
In the 1990s, the campaign caught the town’s imagination. Little girls sold lemonade and one woman donated £1,000. My grandparents signed up as sponsors. Finally, in 2003, a new pool opened, housed in a modern, light-filled building that overlooked the bay and won design awards. “Everywhere there is daylight, an echo of the lido, but without the wind and rain of an English summer,” wrote a critic in the Architects’ Journal. We went swimming in the pool with my grandparents and afterwards had soup in the adjoining café, next to a glass panel engraved with the names of the sponsors, my grandparents among them.
But just three years later, the pool closed after running up debts of £200,000. Although schoolchildren turned up every week, the adult swimmers did not come. “It was never very busy,” said Harris, who retired from Grange Now in 2013. Meanwhile, there were faults with the heating system, and little sense of urgency about saving the centre. “If they’d had a ‘use it or lose it’ message, that might have inspired people. But they didn’t and it just seemed to disappear, like a trickle down the sink.”
Not long after, my grandmother received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and the pool was a ghost among the trees I passed on my way to see her in the care home. In 2013 it was demolished.
Does a community create a pool, or a pool create a community? Many of the supporters of the new pool had imagined it as a place for children, but more than 40 per cent of Grange residents are over the age of 65 a common trend for rural towns, but far higher than England as a whole. In a town of 4,000 or so residents, at least a quarter of all households are pensioners living alone. Visiting my grandparents in the early Noughties, I felt I had travelled decades back in time. There were tea dances and jumble sales, and on Sundays the churches were full. But it isn’t possible to turn your back on the present. In 2017, a council report on the town’s future noted the need to attract a younger demographic to Grange.
A pool doesn’t need to be beautiful to be loved. My local baths in Liverpool, where I live today, is windowless and lit by strip lights, but always busy. The regulars include a waitress who swims before her shift, a group of Scouse-Somali girls learning breaststroke, and three pensioners putting the world to rights in the shallow end. There are no lanes, but somehow collisions are avoided.
[See also: Why do we swim?]
We are in Liverpool and so everyone is chatting, all the time. Sometimes there are political debates. One pensioner thinks asylum seekers shouldn’t complain about staying in hotels; his friend tells him that, with four to a room, it’s like prison. They both jump in with a splash.
One week, when a family member was in hospital, I swam 80 lengths without stopping. For half an hour, my mind was clear as I fell into the rhythm of my teenage summers, back when I could outswim the boys. Later, reading my energy bill, I wondered what would happen if the pool closed, and how I would survive without it.
Phil Bradby grew up in Kendal and used to swim in the Grange Lido as a child in the 1980s. “It was an incredible place, and at that age seemed enormous,” he told me, recalling its art deco interior. He started the Save Grange Lido campaign. He hoped to prevent its demolition and restore it to the heart of the community.
The community was not so sure. Tom Harvey was a councillor in Grange when the newer pool was demolished, and worries that today’s campaigners are too nostalgic: it could be that the demand for a seaside lido is a thing of the past. “My heart says yes,” he told me. “But my head says it has all the ingredients for third time unlucky.”
The campaigners have responded to such scepticism by canvassing curious passers-by outside the derelict pool. Janet Carter, the campaign’s chair of trustees, told me she believes public opinion has swung their way. “We had one lady who said, ‘My grandchildren don’t want swimming. I need somewhere to take them for a cup of tea,’” she recalls. “We said: ‘Have you actually asked your grandchildren?’” She conceded that they might want to swim.
In 2021, Save Grange Lido published an ambitious plan for an open-air pool, complete with gym, café and cinema. The glass panel with my grandparents’ names engraved on it would be resurrected. The South Lakeland District Council approved enough funding to reopen the structure to the public, and work begins this year. But budget restraints, and a need to make the space safe in the meantime, mean the pool itself will be temporarily filled in.
Janet Carter and others continue to campaign for a full reopening. “You can hear the joy, the way people light up when they speak about it,” she said. She had learned to swim, in part, in the Southport bathing lake in Liverpool, a palatial sea lido known for its beauty pageants and diving displays. It was bulldozed in 1993, and replaced by a mall. “I can go back to Southport and look at what is there, and I can just recall the joy, the laughter, ringing out.”
My grandfather died in 2010, four years after the Grange indoor pool closed, in the midst of a winter so cold that even Morecambe Bay froze over. My grandmother, her memory evaporating, lived for another five years. “You’re going to God’s Own Waiting Room,” the conductor once joked as I boarded the train to Grange to visit her.
That evening, in my grandfather’s old suitcase, I found photographs of my grandparents when they had first visited the town. They were young, glamorous, laughing. I could hear the splash of the water against the tiles.
Julia Rampen’s first novel, “The Bay”, partly inspired by Grange Lido, will be published in August by Saraband. You can read more about Save Grange Lido at savegrangelido.co.uk
This article appears in our Summer Special
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special