Keep your wild swimming – I lost my heart to municipal swimming pools

A council swimming pool is for everyone – you can bob around in the shallow end or take a family of five for a magical experience for less than the price of a pizza.

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This is not a polemic about why I don’t like wild swimming – although I don’t. The hating-things-that-women-like industrial complex is doing quite well enough without my adding to it. This is instead a love letter to wild swimming’s frumpier, dumpier, less Instagrammable cousin: the municipal swimming pool.

I can count the swimming pools I have loved in much the same way as I can reel off ex-boyfriends: easily, and with highly variable degrees of affection. As with all loves, the early ones are the ones that stick particularly in my mind. Cascades, in Tewkesbury, with a slide that would take you outside the building (outside the building!) and back in again. The pool by my dad’s house near Glasgow – name omitted to protect its dignity – from which we all once had to evacuate due to an unfortunate incident involving a small child and the lack of a swimming nappy. Sometimes falling in love is the morning sunrise and the birds in the trees, but sometimes love is also a vending machine KitKat and the slight risk of contracting athlete’s foot.

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Much has been written about the freedom that many people find in wild swimming: the return to nature, the shock of cold water on your skin. As a teenager – mildly angry with the world in the same way that all teenagers are – I found the same sense of freedom in my local indoor pool. The great advantage that a swimming pool holds over the wild is of course its warmth, meaning the average person can stay there for much longer. The ability to spend hours hammering up and down the pool – mind empty of thoughts, phone stashed far away in a locker – brought a huge amount of peace to my addled teenage brain. Then, when done, I could sit for free for as long as I wanted at one of the plastic tables, reading or cracking on with my homework. For me, with a happy and stable home life, it was a luxury. For a teenager less lucky, perhaps a lifeline. 

Then there was the outdoor – heated – Lido. The perfect place to do nothing, but to do nothing with a purpose – the primary aim of all teenagers. The stated purpose: swimming. The unspoken purpose: wandering around pretending to be in an American teen drama, hoping beyond hope for the attention of my oblivious crush. Large groups of teenagers loitering on the high street find themselves subject to tuts and muttering. Large groups of teenagers at the local Lido are lauded for that most cherished of parental goals: getting off that bloody computer and going out for some fresh air.

A council swimming pool is for everyone. It is cheap, sometimes free. It welcomes pensioners, preening teenagers and screeching toddlers alike. You can bob around in the shallow end as a beginner, or take a family of five for a magical experience for less than the price of a takeaway pizza. As the government advises us all to get fit – and as the impact of health inequalities becomes all the more stark due to the pandemic – a swimming pool is accessible to all in a way that a pricey gym membership will never be.  With council budgets stretched after Covid, pools may feel like unaffordable luxuries; they aren’t. 

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While writing this article, I googled Cascades swimming pool, looking for confirmation that the slide did indeed go outside of the building and back in again, and that this was not just a product of a fevered childhood imagination. The results led me to the website of a demolition company – a mission accomplished update from 2016, celebrating “a seven-week project, delivered on time & within budget… all suitable materials were crushed & used to backfill the former swimming pools”. 

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this made me feel a shock of sadness. Even if I had not long since moved far across the country, at 5ft 9in I doubt they would have let me have one last go on the slide. But there is something magical about public swimming pools: they might not have the glamour of the Serpentine in central London, or the beauty of Hampstead Ponds – but they’ll still break your heart when they leave. 

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