Take me to your lido! The great British tradition of outdoor swimming pools is alive and well... and they make a great day out

By Frank Barrett

With schools about to break up for summer, many hard-pressed parents will be keeping their fingers crossed that the weather this year is as warm and sunny as it was 12 months ago. And those families keen to find a cooling day out may be surprised to discover that the answer lies  right on their doorstep.

The outdoor swimming pool – the Great British Lido – which was once thought to be going the same way as the dodo, is now undergoing an extraordinary renaissance.

In Bath, for example, the Cleveland Pools – public baths that, incredibly, date back almost 200 years – are being revamped. They were closed 30 years ago (as, at that time, were so many British municipal outdoor swimming pools) so that funds could be diverted to the city’s recently opened leisure centre. 

For a short period afterwards, this historic treasure served as a commercial fish farm, a fact which probably ensured that the baths survived. Now work is in hand to restore the Cleveland Pools to their former glory and open them once again to the public for swimming.

Retro: The art deco Tinside Lido pool on Plymouth Hoe is bathed in afternoon sunshine

Retro: The art deco Tinside Lido pool on Plymouth Hoe is bathed in afternoon sunshine

Other landmarks have also been reopened after lying empty for years, highlighting just what can be achieved when the public gets behind a project.

The Bristol Lido and Brockwell Lido in South London were both  reopened after effective local  campaigns, while in Plymouth, the Tinside Lido – built in exquisite Art Deco style in 1935 and ranked among the best outdoor pools in Europe – was also rescued thanks  to public support.

In its heyday, Tinside, with its  classically proportioned semi- circular pool, was an internationally acclaimed example of seaside  architecture. Fresh seawater was pumped into the pool through three cascades, ensuring a complete change of water every four hours.

Despite its obvious aesthetic charms and splendid location –  Tinside offers wonderful views across  Plymouth Sound – it closed in 1992 as the domestic holiday  market slumped and more and more people headed abroad.

Lasting legacy: Swimming in public lidos has been popular in Britain
since Victorian times

Lasting legacy: Swimming in public lidos has been popular in Britain since Victorian times

Thankfully, all was not lost. Although it remained empty for more than a decade, the pool once more opened to the public in 2005 after a £3.3 million fund-raising campaign.

Ferocious storms over the winter almost wrecked the site, but damage has since been repaired and the pool is operating this summer.

And even more modest lidos are enjoying a renaissance.

Wycombe Rye Lido in High Wycombe is once again attracting families seeking a fun day out. Rising costs had forced the local authority to close the facility in 2009, but it was back in business two years later.

And visitors need not worry about having to brave chilly waters – the pool is heated from April to October.

Alas, many other sites have not been quite so fortunate. Half a century ago, Britain was a land of magnificent outdoor swimming pools, many styling themselves as lidos as an homage to the then famously fashionable lido of Venice.

Travel around Britain today and where once splendid vast classical lidos graced town parks or seaside promenades, you may well now find an empty grassy plot; study carefully and you may spot a toppled classical pediment among the weeds. Look on ye mighty, and despair.

The wonderful Weston-super-Mare lido, for example, with its fabulous concrete Art Deco high diving board – once reckoned to be the finest of its sort in the whole of Europe – has remained an ugly boarded-up seafront hulk for as long as locals can remember.

In North London, the excellent Bounds Green lido closed suddenly in 1988 and became the Sunshine Garden Centre.

I still have vivid memories of diving into its 8ft 6in deep-end during the 1976 heatwave and fearing my heart would stop as the water was so bitterly cold.


Many of the finest lidos have been sadly erased from the landscape. Gone for ever, for example, is Blackpool’s Open Air Baths, which was once described as the ‘Wembley  Stadium of swimming’ and a ‘Lancastrian temple to Neptune’. Archive pictures show a structure built on a vast scale, a place that hosted the finals of the Miss Blackpool beauty pageant no less.

The Bathing Pool at New Brighton, Merseyside – reckoned in its heyday to be ‘the greatest bathing arena in the world’ – was also lost.

This was something constructed on the epic scale of a Roman amphitheatre.

In London in the 1950s, there were 50 locations that offered outdoor swimming – and there was even a plan to make the capital ‘a city of lidos’. But by 2005, the number had dwindled to just ten.

Life for surviving lidos isn’t always easy either. Penzance’s handsome Jubilee Lido reopened in 1994 but has now had to close again after structural damage caused by storms last winter. A fundraising campaign is under way to pay for repairs.

Given the haste with which lidos have been closed, the miracle is  that so many have survived in the first place.

Flashback: The final of the 1970 Miss Blackpool Beauty competition, which was held at Blackpool Lido each summer

Flashback: The final of the 1970 Miss Blackpool Beauty competition, which was held at Blackpool Lido each summer

But survive they have, and if you’re planning a day out this summer and you’re looking for a change from the seaside, why not check out your nearest outdoor pool? Visit lidos.org.uk for a list of more than 100 sites throughout the UK.

From an Olympic-sized seawater pool in Aberdeenshire (not necessarily the first place you’d think of for an alfresco plunge) to the oldest freshwater lido in England, there are some wonderful places to make a splash.

Of course, there will still be some who can’t be tempted to dip a toe in unless it’s the same temperature as their bath water. Should the weather let us down this summer, there are always some modern marvels, such as the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at the new Center Parcs at Woburn Forest.

It’s a vast pleasure dome with a glazed front and a tropical climate (the dome’s interior is heated year- round to a sultry 85F). It features a main pool which generates its own waves, the Twister (an enclosed  flume) and the Typhoon, a two-seater tube ride that will whizz you through enclosed tunnels.


Bristol: Bristol Lido (lidobristol.com) Oakfield Place, Clifton

Dating back to 1849, the Lido in Bristol was one of the first open-air pools built to cater for the Victorians’ love of spas and baths. The baths closed in 1990 and remained empty for nearly 20 years until a local campaign was mounted to revive them. The site reopened in 2008, and features a spa, hot-tub, sauna, poolside bar and 75-seater restaurant.

Cambridge: Jesus Green (better.org.uk) Thompsons Lane, Cambridge

Built to mimic the experience of river bathing (the pool sits right alongside the River Cam), this is one of Europe’s longest.

Cheltenham: Sandford Parks Lido (sandfordparkslido.org.uk), Keynsham Road

Situated on the edge of the Cotswolds and 80 years old next year, this (below) is an Olympic-length pool located beside a refurbished Art Deco main building.

80 years young: The elegant Sandford Parks Lido in Cheltenham

London: Brockwell Lido (fusion-lifestyle.com) Dulwich Road, Brockwell

Known to locals as Brixton Beach, Brockwell is one of London’s most famous lidos, designed in a sublime Art Deco style. It was closed in 1990 but after a highly effective campaign it reopened four years later and set the template for other revivals. If you don’t want to swim, visit the award-winning poolside cafe that is open from breakfast to dinner.

Tooting Bec: Lido (wandsworth.gov.uk) Tooting Bec Road, Tooting

This is the largest swimming pool by surface area in the UK – it’s 300ft long and 100ft wide. This is cold water swimming at its finest.

Lewes: Pells Pool (pellspool.org.uk) Brook Street, Lewes, East Sussex

This fine old pool, which claims  to be the oldest freshwater lido  in England, has been a popular attraction since it opened in 1860. Come here for a picnic under hornbeam trees or a dip after  a ride on the South Downs.

Ilkley: Ilkley Pool & Lido (bradford.gov.uk) Denton Road, Ilkley, West Yorkshire

Ilkley’s splendid listed pool  with Art Deco cafe has become almost as famous as the town’s celebrated moor. Worth visiting simply to enjoy the uniquely mushroom-shaped lido (the circular part of the pool is a whopping 150ft in diameter). From here you can even  enjoy the view of the Cow  and Calf rock formations on  Ilkley Moor.

Scotland: Gourock Outdoor Swimming Pool (inverclydeleisure.com) Albert Road, Gourock

Recently refurbished, this is  a magnificent pool, heated to  84F, which has spectacular views over the Clyde Estuary.

Stonehaven: Stonehaven Open Air Pool (stonehavenopenairpool.co.uk) Queen Elizabeth Park

Now in its 80th year, this is an utterly unexpected treat situated in north-east Scotland, about 19 miles from Aberdeen. Swim in an Olympic-sized pool, the UK’s only open-air heated seawater pool (the water from Stonehaven  Bay is cleaned and heated to a balmy 84F from every May to September and is often ‘warmer than the Med’, according to the operators). For a real treat swim beneath the stars at midnight.

Northern Ireland: Newcastle Rock Pool (www.downdc.gov.uk) 10-14 Central Promenade, Newcastle

For more than 80 years this pool has been a Northern Ireland landmark. A fine seawater pool with the Mourne Mountains as a backdrop. The water is unheated so be prepared!

Channel Islands: Jersey Havre de Pas Tidal Pool (gov.je) St Helier

Havre de Pas is the most southerly lido in the British Isles. Here you will find a handsome tidal pool open to swimmers year-round and completely free. With large steps down to the water, changing rooms, freshwater showers, a cafe and a low-tide toddler pool, it’s a great spot to camp out and spend the whole day with the children.


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