As the weather warms up, cool down in one of the country’s many lovely lidos.

It is a pleasing paradox that an Italian word should be so immediately evocative of Britishness in the inter-war years. And yet the lido – whose name is derived from an island in the Venice lagoon where, then as now, glamorous folk would swim and sunbathe – inescapably conjures images of holidaymakers in swimming caps and old-style modest bathing suits, merrily going for a dip in one of the country’s plethora of open air swimming pools.

The Victorians may have introduced the concept but the 1930s were indubitably the golden age of the lido. At the height of lido culture, which was influenced by the German Volksparks, there were some 300 examples across the country, aimed at fostering healthy outdoor leisure pursuits. But after the Second World War, some remained closed and, combined with the subsequent rise of inexpensive overseas holidays, many more fell into sad disrepair.

Today, a third of that golden age number survive. The good news is that more and more are being restored thanks to the tireless work of community groups who recognise the lido’s value to communities. After all, many were classic examples of Art Deco design; to let them crumble forever would be a crime against architecture, aside from anything else. Plus, as we learn more and more about the benefits of cold-water swimming, such open-air pools are gaining popularity all year round – all without having to wonder whether a river is safe enough, or indeed clean enough, to swim in.

These are a few of the nation’s favourites. If you haven’t taken the plunge already, we recommend that you come on in – the water is lovely.

Jubilee Pool


Penzance, Cornwall


Opened in 1935, Penzance’s Jubilee Pool is a glorious testament to the genius of the Art Deco movement, a perfect-triangle of streamlined cruise-liner style simplicity. The largest seawater pool in Britain, you can dive straight into the cold water, or take it slowly by opting for the gentler geothermal pool instead and working your way up (or not). There’s a great café, and you can even visit the lido therapist for a massage if you want to really unwind. Visit the website here.


Bristol Lido


Bristol


To visit the wonderful Bristol Lido today is to make the idea that it came dangerously close to redevelopment as flats all the more horrifying. Originally opened in 1850, it fell into disrepair and was finally closed in 1990. And there it languished until 2006, when the Glass Boat Company bought it and began a major restoration. Today it is one of the most beloved spots in Bristol; the 24-metre pool – which is kept at a toasty 22-to-24 degrees – complemented by an excellent café and restaurant serving up excellent tapas. There is a spa on-site too for post-swim massages, all of which are 60 minutes long. Do check out its excellent deals, such as the swim and lunch package for £40 per person, or swim and breakfast for £35. Visit the website here.


Saltdean Lido


East Sussex


In 2010, Saltdean Lido’s leaseholder announced plans to fill the lido with concrete and build flats on the site instead. Had it done so, it would have demolished the crescent-shaped Art Deco beauty that was first unveiled in 1937. Thankfully, then, it was saved by local residents who secured the lease from Brighton & Hove City Council to operate the lido site. Together, they are currently carrying out full restoration works, even as the pool is open to the public from 23 May. A triumph of the power of impassioned people to save an historic piece of architecture and an invaluable leisure spot for locals and visitors alike. Visit the website here.


Pells Pool


Lewes, East Sussex


Just down the road from Saltdean in the East Sussex market town of Lewes, keen swimmers will find Pells Pool. Constructed in 1860, it is the oldest still-operative fresh water swimming baths in the country and, miraculously, has never been closed. Fifty yards long by 25 yards wide, its spring water is drawn from the chalk aquifer beneath the baths; bracing but invigorating, there is a changing area, a shallow pool for small children and a lawn to sunbathe on, as well as a café selling snacks. Visit the website here.


Tinside Lido


Plymouth


Tinside Lido is often voted one of the very best outdoor pools throughout Europe. And it’s easy to see why; its perfect position overlooking the sea at the tip of Plymouth Hoe surely qualifies it as the original infinity pool. Built in 1935, it closed in 1992, but local campaigners secured a £3.4m renovation and the bestowal of Grade II-listed status, securing its future for generations to come. Recline on its sun deck and channel our interwar forbears and the golden age of the British seaside holiday. Visit the website here.


Cleveland Pools


Bath


Britain’s oldest lido dates back over 200 years to 1815, making it the only Georgian example in the UK. It has been closed since 1984, but after seventeen years of campaigning and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £4.7m of the £5.7m necessary to bring it back to life, it is being comprehensively restored and is set to re-open this summer (do check the website for updates). We can’t wait to dive in. Visit the website here.


Tooting Bec Lido


South London


One of south London’s most beloved treasures, Tooting Bec Lido first opened in 1906, known then as the Tooting Bathing-Lake. Though the council considered closing it in the 1990s, it was saved by local campaigning, and has thus been operative ever since its opening. The unheated waters make for a refreshing plunge. Visit the website here.


Kenwood Ladies Pond


North London


This natural bathing pond is one of the most beautiful, not just in London but anywhere. A dreamy, almost other-worldly spot, many adore it as much as a place just for women as for the fresh invigorating waters. Do note, if you’re bringing children, they must be over eight and under fifteens need to be accompanied by an adult (they will also be asked to pass a swimming proficiency test before being allowed in). Visit the website here.


Beckenham Place


South London


This is the latest lido (of sorts) to join the ranks of London’s existing excellent outdoor swimming options – but it comes with a slight difference: it is, in fact, a man-made lake for cold-water swimmers and wetland birds. Fresh, bracing and enlivening, it is a wonderful spot for a bathe – but do note, children must be over eight, and all swimmers must wear tow-floats. Lifeguards are on-hand too to ensure the safety of Beckenham’s plucky swimmers. For information on opening times, click here.

By Nancy Alsop
May 2022

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