Memorandum submitted by Mr Roger Deakin
I am a writer and swimmer, and author of WATERLOG.
A Swimmer's journey through Britain, published by Chatto &
Windus and Vintage. During the writing of the book from 1997 to
1999 I travelled all over the country meeting swimmers and visiting
swimming holes of one kind or another, including swimming pools
and lidos. Since the publication of the book I have received a
great many letters from readers expressing their passionate commitment
to swimming as a cultural activity, but not necessarily as a sport.
I believe that to the vast majority of citizens,
swimming is perceived less as a sport than simply an enjoyable
recreational pursuit like hill walking. The sport of swimming,
though an admirable thing, bears the same relation to swimming
as practised by most people as mountain climbing bears to hill
I attach as evidence of the cultural value and
potential of swimming two essays: one on lidos I wrote for the
Telegraph, and an edited version taken from the first chapter
of my book,The Discreet Pleasure of Lidos, 11 May
2000, sent to Clare Thomson, Daily Telegraph Travel.
It must be a sign of our Anglo-Saxon awkwardness
about the pleasures of the flesh that we borrowed the word "lido"
from the Italians just as we took "café", "restaurant"
and "champagne" from the French. Like restaurants, lidos
are about style and sensuality. Iris Murdoch called swimming pools
"machines for swimming in", but lidos are grander, more
elaborate. Lidos are to swimming pools as lingerie is to underwear.
Their outrageous fountains and curvaceous terraces celebrate the
exuberant beauty of the water they frame, so that a special sense
of freedom comes over you when you stand poised to plunge in.
Lidos have always been designed with a strong sense of theatre,
noble settings for the display of bathers or the daring of swallow-divers
on high boards. You go to a lido to bathe and to be seen to bathe.
Like anything with such a high ingredient of
style, lidos have inevitably swung wildly in and out of fashion.
During the 1930s every self-respecting town in the country lusted
for one. Then, during the 1960s and 1970s, in a nation-wide act
of vandalism to rival Cromwell's desecration of the churches,
lidos were closed one after another, filled in and turned into
car parks, supermarkets or garden centres. Recently, realising
what we had now it's all but gone, we have been rediscovering
the practical value of lidos as symbols of the central importance
of good health, fitness and pleasure in our lives.
Miraculously, one or two have survived. The
magnificent tidal Jubilee Bathing Pool at Penzance transformed
the modest resort overnight into the capital of the Cornish Riviera
on its Grand Opening in May 1935, when the major led a procession
from the Sailor's Institute, and Professor Hicks, the Cornish
Veteran Champion, took the First Plunge before a cheering crowd,
followed by a beauty parade of bathing belles and a Grand Water
Polo Match against Plymouth, won, naturally, by the Penzance lads.
Everything about the Jubilee Pool is still grand
to this day, thanks to some recent repairs and improvements. The
gigantic triangular lido juts boldly out from the seafront as
if to emphasise its pre-eminent position as the southernmost pool
in the British Isles. It opened in the same year as Plymouth's
imposing seafront lido, the Tinside Pool, which now lies scandalously
neglected and derelict along the coast. In 1990 Penzance nearly
lost its lido too when the council proposed to turn it into a
modern "fun pool" in an indoor "leisure centre".
It was saved by the imagination of John Clarke, the retired Assistance
County Architect for Cornwall. He had the Jubilee Pool listed
as a Grade Two building, then raised money for its repair.
With its dramatic ocean-liner decks, stainless-steel
fittings and terraces, the Jubilee Pool is highly theatrical.
Winding your way down towards the million gallons of sea-water
that flood this artificial rock pool, you feel you are going on
stage. The effect is heightened by the brilliance of the reflected
sunbeams flickering about the white solar-heated concrete ramparts
that surround the pool and gaze out to sea. Such bright lights
make every lido swimmer feel a little like a Hollywood star.
It was the old London County Council that originally
led the way in the lido boom of the 1920s and 1930s with its open
air pools in Victoria Park, Hackney, Brockwell Park and Tooting
Bec. Only two lidos have survived in South London, at Brockwell
Park and Tooting Bec.
The rows of wooden cubicle doors reflected in
the water at "the Bec" on Tooting Common are painted
bright Rastafarian red, yellow and green, and run the full hundred
yards of the biggest pool in London. If the sheer size of it hasn't
taken your breath away, the water temperature probably will, until
it warms up after the first hot spell of the summer. There can
be as many as 6,000 here on a hot day. In less than eighteen lengths
of "the Bec" you have covered a mile, so it's the favoured
haunt of the Channel swimmers and triathletes, who come here for
long-distance training. With over 500 members, including the 200
women of the Bec Mermaids, the South London Swimming Club must
be one of the most enterprising in the country. In 1991, when
the pool was threatened with closure over the winter months, the
swimmers' passion for the place convinced Wandsworth Council to
agree that they should take over the running of the lido off-season.
The South Londoners are enthusiastic cold-water swimmers, even
breaking the ice if necessary to swim a width, and always racing
on New Year's Day and Christmas Day. Tooting Bec lido is at last
being cherished as a public asset with Lottery funding for reconstruction
that includes a 1930s-style poolside café and restaurant.
To the north of the river, there are still the
superb Highgate ponds on Hampstead Heath. The Ladies Pond is highest
up the hill and said to have the best water because it is nearest
to the natural springs in Kenwood which feed the deep, wooded
pools. There has been swimming at the Men's Pond for over ninety
years. Entrance is free and in the fenced enclosure nudity is
de rigeur amongst the regularsthe serious swimmers, chess
players, weight-lifters, readers and sunbathers for whom this
is a sort of club. Out on the springboards and in the water, costumes
are required. There are no longer any high boardsa sign
of these cautious times. In the 1930s the Highgate Diving Club
used to practise dives from the ten-metre board and their Aquatic
Carnivals attracted crowds of 10,000. The Mixed Pool is next down
the hill and especially beautiful on summer evenings.
The City of London Corporation still maintains
the Highgate Ponds for swimmers free of charge, also allowing
free swimming in the listed 1930s Parliament Hill Fields Lido
from seven until nine each morning. The 67-yard pool is at its
scintillating best at that time of day, surrounded by a walled
amphitheatre of paved sun-terraces and surveyed by a bay-windowed
café. Bathers are always accompanied by a pair of resident
ducksreal, not plastic.
Just a bike ride away is my favourite miniature
lido in the middle of Covent Garden on the corner of Endell Street.
The Oasis lives up to its name as a haven where Londoners can
abandon themselves to the embrace of sunshine or the water. I
recommend a winter visit, when the heated open-air pool steams
vigorously during frosty spells and fellow swimmers loom up out
of a dense mist.
You can still bathe during the summer months
in the Serpentine Lido in Hyde Park. It was George Lansbury, the
leader of the Labour Party, who opened part of the lake for mixed
bathing in 1929 in the face of stiff opposition from the conservative
Parks Commissioners. He subscribed to the new social ideas about
healthy urban living, the benefits of sunshine and sunbathing,
and the new cult of the outdoor life, many of which had originated
in Germany. As early as 1920, the Mayor of Berlin, Gustav Boss,
had created people's parks, "Volksparks", where free
outdoor swimming pools were not only part of the park but very
much its symbolic heart.
The new cult of the body in Germany found expression
in Hans Suren's Man and Sunlight, published in 1925. It
went into multiple editions all over Europe.
Over the next decade, the lido turnstiles never
stopped clicking. By 1935, when the Penzance lido opened, so did
others at Ilkley, Norwich, Peterborough, Aylesbury, Cheltenham
By some miracle, R W H Jones's marvellously
streamlined, flowing Saltdean Lido near Brighton has recently
undergone a renaissance. It is open again after a period of neglect
that looked as if it might prove terminal. To swim there is the
nearest thing I can imagine to being a penguin in that other definitive
lido of the 1930s, Berthold Lubetkin's penguin pool at London
At Saltdean, the beauty of the swimming pool
is in its graphic simplicity, framing the contrasting, exquisite
complexity of the snaking mosaic of wave-forms projected on the
bottom. Jones's design expresses the natural parabolas and curves
water makes in bright chrome railings or horizontal curvilinear
sweeps of whitened concrete.
Architects were quick to recognise the potential
of the lido as a richly symbolic threshold space between the elements
of earth and water. Lubetkin's Penguin Pool, built in 1934, was
not only the first piece of modern architecture in Britain to
hit the headlines and capture the popular imagination; it is still
probably the most exciting lido anyone has every built. More than
that, it is a bold experiment in community housing for a little
society of birds that look and behave very much like people. Its
twin cantilevered spiral ramps rising out of the water, on which
the penguins sun themselves in their dinner suits, caused a sensation
in the architectural world when they were built in 1934. Engineered
by Lubetkin's partner Ove Arup, they dramatically demonstrated
the potential of reinforced concrete as a new and poetic way of
building that could flow and spiral like water. The clean lines
and abstract simplicity of the construction afforded a glimpse
of the possibilities of life for people as well as penguins in
a new modern environment and inspired a generation of new lidos
all over Europe.
I last visited the lido at Ilkley in Yorkshire
during a heatwave and its curious flower-shaped pool was packed
with so many swimmers they threatened to displace all the water.
Children sat astride the vigorous central fountain in vain attempts
to suppress it, squealing on the knife-edge between pleasure and
pain. Families sat picnicking or sunbathing on acres of lawn divided
by hedges, or in mock-half-timbered pavilions with open fronts.
They even had wire baskets in the changing rooms, but no Brylcreem
The formality of Cheltenham's Sandford Lido,
with its white-colonnaded classical pool, fountain and gardens,
contrasts with the homely simplicity of the charming miniature
heated open-air lido over at Cirencester, which dates back to
1870 and has been heated since 1931. It was successfully taken
over as a community enterprise when the passionate local swimmers
refused to see it closed down by the council nearly thirty years
ago. You enter by a little footbridge across the river by a castle
wall and there are lawns a view of grazing cattle, and a bright
Mediterranean blue tuckshop serving Bovril and hot chocolate.
Some of the best lidos are half-wild and run
by swimmers themselves. At Henleaze, behind the villas of a leafy
outskirt of Bristol, is the magnificent Henleaze Swimming Club,
a flooded quarry fed by springs that has been the club lido since
the 1920s. There are high diving boards, lawns and willows, changing
pavilions, and the steep, hewn cliffsides create a natural suntrap.
It is a spectacular setting for a swim. Unsurprisingly, there
is a long waiting list to be one of the 1500 members. On the banks
of the River Frome at Farleigh Hungerford near Trowbridge in Somerset
is an even wilder unofficial lido. Near the old castle at Farleigh,
there are changing sheds in a south-facing water meadow, and ladders
lead into a deep river pool. At Cambridge, beside the Cam at Jesus
Green is another quiet lido: a pool that seems to run to infinity
bordered by a row of tall limes you can gaze into as you swim.
Meanwhile in Lewes, Sussex, the beautiful spring-fed Pells Swimming
Poolthe oldest in the country, opened in 1860is
in peril of becoming a skateboard park, despite a recent petition
from the citizens, with 3,200 signatures collected in just three
In Iris Murdoch's novel The Philsopher's
Pupil, life in an English spa-town called Ennistone centres
around the swimming pools and baths, and the townspeople all swim
there seven days a week, morning, noon and night, introducing
their children to the infants' pool at the age of six weeks.
"Serious swimming" says the narrator, "was
a matter of pride in our town" and the motto over the pool
entrance, Natando Virtus, suggests that through swimming
comes virtue, personal and perhaps civic too.
The lido movement of the 1930s likewise placed
pleasure and health firmly at the centre of civic life, freely
available to all. The significance of the recent decline of many
of our lidos, as the writer and social policy analyst Ken Worpole
has pointed out, is that "their neglect in recent decades
speaks volumes about our return to the private, the indoor and
our retreat from collective provision." It we want a healthier,
happier society we might, instead of always thinking of lidos
as things of the past, begin to imagine the lidos of the future.
2.1 THE MOAT
The warm rain tumbled from the gutter in one
of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind
my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat. Breaststroking
up and down the thirty yards of clear, green water, I nosed along,
eyes just at water level. The frog's-eye view of rain on the moat
was magnificent. Rain calms water, it freshens it, sinks all the
floating pollen, dead bumblebees and other flotsam. Each raindrop
exploded in a momentary bouncing fountain that turned into a bubble
and burst. The best moments were when the storm intensified, drowning
birdsong, and a haze rose off the water as though the moat itself
was rising to meet the lowering sky. Then the rain eased and the
reflected heavens were full of tiny dancers: water sprites springing
up on tiptoe like bright pins over the surface. It was raining
It was at the height of this drenching in the
summer of 1996 that the notion of a long swim through Britain
began to form itself. I wanted to follow the rain on its meanderings
about our land to rejoin the sea, to break out of the frustration
of a lifetime doing lengths, of endlessly turning back on myself
like a tiger pacing its cage. I began to dream of secret swimming
holes and a journey of discovery through what William Morris,
in the title to one of his romances, called The Water of Wondrous
Isles. My inspiration was John Cheever's classic short story
The Swimmer, in which the hero, Ned Merrill, decides to
swim the eight miles home from a party on Long Island via a series
of his neighbours' swimming pools. One sentence in the story stood
out and worked on my imagination: "He seemed to see, with
a cartographer's eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean
stream that curved across the county."
Like the endless cycle of the rain, I would
begin and end the journey in my moat, setting out the following
spring and swimming through the year. I would keep a log of impressions
and events as I went.
My earliest memory of serious swimming is of
being woken very early on holiday mornings with my grandparents
in Kenilworth by a sudden rain of pebbles at my bedroom window
aimed by my Uncle Laddie, who was a local swimming champion and
had his own key to the outdoor pool. My cousins and I were reared
on mythic tales of his exploits, in races, on high boards, or
swimming far out to sea, so it felt an honour to swim with him.
Long before the lifeguards arrived, we would unlock the wooden
gate and set the straight black refracted lines on the bottom
of the green pool snaking and shimmying.
It was usually icy, but the magic of being first
in is what I remember. "We had the place to ourselves",
we would say with satisfaction afterwards over breakfast. Our
communion with the water was all the more delightful for being
free of charge. It was my first taste of unofficial swimming.
Years later, driven mad by the heat one sultry
summer night, a party of us clambered over the low fence of the
old open-air pool at Diss in Norfolk. We joined other silent,
informal swimmers who had somehow stolen in, hurdling the dormant
turnstiles, and now loomed past us in the water only to disappear
again into the darkness like characters from Under Milk Wood.
Such indelible swims are like dreams, and have the same profound
effect on the mind and spirit. In the night sea at Walberswick
I have seen bodies fiery with phosphorescent plankton striking
through the neon waves like dragons.
The more I thought about it, the more obsessed
I became with the idea of a swimming journey. I began to dream
ever more exclusively of water. Swimming and dreaming were becoming
indistinguishable. I became convinced that following water, flowing
with it, would be a way of getting under the skin of things, of
learning something new. I might learn about myself too. In water,
all possibilities seemed infinitely extended. Free of the tyranny
of gravity and the weight of the atmosphere, I found myself in
the wide-eyed condition described by the Australian poet Les Murray
when he said: "I am only interested in everything".
The enterprise began to feel like some medieval quest. When Merlin
turns the future King Arthur into a fish as part of his education
in The Sword in the Stone, T H White says, "He could
do what men always wanted to do, that is, fly. There is practically
no difference between flying in the water and flying in the air
. . . It was like the dreams people have."
When you swim, you feel your body for what it
mostly iswaterand it begins to flow with the water
around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales;
we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how
it was before you were born. Once in the water, you are immersed
in an intensely private world as you were in the womb. These amniotic
waters are both utterly safe and yet terrifying, for at birth
anything could go wrong, and you are assailed by all kinds of
unknown forces over which you have no control. This may account
for the anxieties every swimmer experiences from time to time
in deep water. A swallow dive off the high board into the void
is an image that brings together all the contradictions of birth.
The swimmer experiences the terror and the bliss of being born.
So swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing
of boundaries. The important physical boundaries the swimmer crosses
are always symbolic: the line of the shore, the bank of the river,
the edge of the pool, the surface itself. When you enter the water,
something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land,
you go through the looking glass surface and enter a new world,
in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.
The lifeguards at the pool or the beach remind you of the thin
line between waving and drowning. You see and experience things
when you're swimming in a way that is completely different from
any other. You are in nature, part and parcel of it, in a far
more complete and intense way than on dry land, and your sense
of the present is overwhelming. In wild water you are on equal
terms with the animal world around you: in every sense, on the
same level. As a swimmer, I can go right up to a frog in the water
and it will show more curiosity than fear. The damselflies and
dragonflies that crowd the surface of the moat pointedly ignore
me, just taking off for a moment to allow me to go by, then landing
again in my wake.
Natural water has always held the magical power
to cure. Somehow or other, it transmits its own self-regenerating
powers to the swimmer. I can dive in with a long face and what
feels like a terminal case of depression, and come out a whistling
idiot. There is a feeling of absolute freedom and wildness that
comes with the sheer liberation of nakedness as well as weightlessness
in natural water, and it leads to a deep bond with the bathing-place.
Most of us live in a world where more and more
places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially "interpreted".
There is something about all this that is turning the reality
of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking,
cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities, as
long as you can get off the beaten track and break free of the
patronising adoption into an official version of much of what
is old and wild in this land. They are a way of regaining a sense
of the mystery of these islands. Swimming, in particular, would
provide access to that part of our world which, like darkness,
mist, woods, or high mountains, still retains most mystery. It
would afford me a different perspective on the rest of landlocked
I swim breaststroke for preference, but I am
no champion, just a competent swimmer with a fair amount of stamina.
Part of my intention in setting out on the journey was not to
perform any spectacular feats, but to try and learn something
of the mystery D H Lawrence noticed in his poem The Third Thing:
"Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one. But there
is also a third thing, that makes it water, and nobody knows what
Cheever describes being in the water, for Ned
Merrill, as "less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption
of a natural condition". My intention was to revert to a
similarly feral state. For the best part of a year, the water
would become my natural habitat. Otters sometimes set off across
country in search of new territory, fresh water, covering as much
as twelve miles in a night. I suppose there is part of all of
us that envies the otter, the dolphin and the whale, our mammal
cousins who are so much better adapted to water than we are, and
seem to get so much more enjoyment from life than we do. If I
could learn even a fraction of whatever they know, the journey
would be richly repaid.
Packing in preparation for my swimming journey,
I felt something of the same apprehension and exhilaration as
I imagine the otter might feel about going off into the blue.
But, as with Ned Merrill in The Swimmer, my impulse to
set off was simple enough at heart: "The day was beautiful
and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate
3 December 2001