The UK isn’t known for its outdoor swimming opportunities, writes Holly O’Mahony…
Many of our beaches are written off for their pebbles or rough tides, while outdoor pools and dedicated wild swimming locations are relatively scarce. Then there’s our unpredictable weather, which often sees off plans to to go for a quick dip anywhere other than an indoor, heated pool. But while outdoor swimming is far less popular in the UK than other parts of Europe and further afield, the country’s remaining lidos are steeped in history.
The borough of Greenwich is home to a tucked-away treasure in the form of Charlton Lido. Many outdoor pools, including Charlton’s, underwent a period of closure for several years, before the funds could be raised to see a refurbishment through. Charlton Lido was one of the lucky ones, reopening fully for public use in 2013, following a £2m refurb. The lido now belongs to the Better Leisure franchise, and offers a 50m heated outdoor pool and fitness classes all year round.
The 1930s were the golden age for lidos in the UK. A total of 169 were built over the course of the decade, funded by local councils with a vision of providing more recreational swimming spaces. Charlton Lido was originally opened on 6 May 1939 – right at the end of the ‘lido boom’ – by Councilor H Icough, who was the Mayor of Greenwich at the time. Roughly 800 people gathered for the ceremony, which included trumpet fanfare from the London Fire Brigade Band and a diving display by Greenwich Swimming Club.
In recent history, Charlton Lido has had its moments in the spotlight, featuring in the music video of Blazin’ Squad’s 2003 song ‘We Just Be Dreamin’ and in an episode of ITV show The Bill in 2004. But arguably, the lido’s more charming stories come from its regular swimmers – one of whom is Jonathan Pike, who has been swimming at the lido since 2005.
“Charlton Lido was a great discovery,” says Jonathan. “The extra length of the pool, 50 yards then, the absence of a strong smell of chlorine, and the sheer pleasure of swimming in fresh air and cool water was all new to me.”
That autumn, when the lido closed its doors to the public for winter, Jonathan joined the group who swam all year round, maintaining the pool and surrounding area in return. Chores included topping up the water level, gardening, weeding and clearing any fallen leaves.
By the time Jonathan joined the regulars, the group had already seen off plans to turn the lido into a skate park. Developments were eventually abandoned, but the lido was left in a derelict state, so the regulars at the time took it upon themselves to clear the rubbish, repair the pool lining and hand-paint the lane lines again.
For Jonathan and many of the other year-round swimmers, cold water swimming – even without a wetsuit – is addictive. “I could happily manage 400 yards in water at 42F (5.5C) back when I started. But as the temperature dropped to the point that ice formed, the amount of swimming time diminished, in my case to about one-and-a-half minutes.” Jonathan recalls wearing old washing up gloves to ease the pain of the cold water on his hands, but insists that a day without a cold dip felt wrong.
Jonathan and the other regular swimmers noticed that they suffered less frequently with colds than they had done before swimming outdoors. “There was some debate about whether this was down to the cold water or the fresh air… I am of the opinion that it is in part due to the extra doses of vitamin D gained from brief but regular skin exposure to sunlight, and the benefits that this provides to the immune system,” he says.
Curious to test the appeal, I went for a swim at Charlton Lido (admittedly in the balmy month of June). Having swum in both Tooting Bec and Brockwell Lido in the past, I felt I had a couple of decent comparison points. On my visit, straight after work on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, the pool was relatively quiet – certainly less busy than I had ever seen Brockwell Lido – and I had a lane all to myself. Had I struck it lucky? Yes, according to a lifeguard, who told me that on a hot weekend, you can’t even see the pool floor for all the people in it – not to mention those sunbathing round its sides. The water was gloriously warm (at around 25C it felt like a bath compared to chilly Tooting Bec Lido) and the friendly snippets of conversation I overheard by the poolside and in the locker room signaled to the pool’s close-knit community. The changing rooms are simple but the showers warm and powerful, and there are poolside changing cubicles, too.
The popularity of outdoor swimming in the UK could be making a comeback. The lido at London Fields reopened in 2006 having been closed for nearly 20 years, and plans are well underway to open a new wild swimming lake in Lewisham’s Beckenham Place Park. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan put £440,000 towards the plan, with the works set to be complete by spring 2019. Meanwhile the community in Peckham is campaigning to get Peckham Rye Lido reopened.
“The pleasure of swimming during rain or snow, or under an icy blue sky when the steam rising from the water makes it impossible to see the other end of the lane, is a real luxury,” says Jonathan. “Long may it continue.”
Charlton Lido, Hornfair Park, Shooters Hill Road, London, SE18 4LX, is open to the public from 6am – 10pm Monday – Thursday, 6am – 8pm Friday, 9am – 5pm Saturday and Sunday. Admission: £7/£4 concessions/£3 seniors/£2 junior Green Card holders. More information here.