Lidos have a special meaning for those of us of a certain age. They evoke childhood memories of style and glamour with outdoor swimming, ice creams by the pool and art deco buildings, often gleaming white. But the development of modern indoor pools saw a great number of these outdoor pleasure palaces disappear as they fell into disrepair and failed to compete with modern local sports facilities. There is now a growing campaign to preserve and improve lidos, trying to capture that distant magic which so many of us remember with parents watching our first swimming lessons while enjoying coffee and sandwiches under elegant umbrellas. Most lidos now enjoying a renaissance, were founded in the 1930s, at the height of the craze for outdoor leisure and sophisticated swimming parties. For example, one of the largest lidos in the country is Sandford Parks, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, which was founded in 1935 – and is recognised as the most historically complete lido in England.
With a 10-lane 50-metre pool it was one of the few lidos large enough to be used for Olympics training and the Malawi swimming team used it as their base.And the nearby children’s pool is a popular attraction throughout the season. Unusually the water has been heated ever since 1935 – although the old coal-fired boilers have been replaced by modern gas ones. “That’s where most of our money goes,” says chief executive Julie Sargent who has been at Cheltenham since 1996, having previously been in charge of the ‘Pool on the Park’ at Richmond, Surrey. Now 43, she has been in the outdoor pool industry since she was 16 and believes the whole ethos of lidos is about the surroundings. “The aerator we have takes an enormous amount of pressure – and is based on the original one built in 1935,” she says. “When this was built it was a long-term plan of 60 years and the landscaping was carried out by the top team of Milner and White. “People come as much for the beautiful surroundings as for the swimming, with childrens’ play equipment, lawns and fabulous trees. We sub-lease some of the land to a local gym operator and the car park generates some cash for us.” Like most lidos it is only open from May till early October – but winter sees an annual Christmas Day swim and a ‘Brass Monkeys’ event in January.
“Winter maintenance is vital and all lidos use those months to keep the facilities in excellent condition,” says Julie, who runs the charity that owns the four and a half acres of the site. The ASA (Amateur Swimming Association) has officially recognised Sandford Parks as a measured 50m pool and to help keep funds coming in Gloucester Rugby Club use the lido as a training venue. It also has facilities for table tennis and basketball, together with a cafe. “We may be land-locked here but we bring in users from as far away as Brighton, Newport, Swindon and Bristol,” says Julie. “The Olympics raised our profile and this last May bank holiday weekend we have been very busy because of the unusually splendid weather.” In an average season, 150,000 users pass through the turnstyles – the target set in 1950 was for 200,000, and the closest they have got was in 2006 with 198,000. Coincidentally that was the year they got a Heritage Lottery Grant for £382,000 and were able to massively improve the facilities.
“Most of our money goes on utilities,” says Julie. “Our water is from the mains and we have to heat it, treat it and aerate it, which all costs a lot. “Lottery money is not always going to be there and we hope that the legacy of the Olympics will see more people using lidos.” Staff at Sandford Parks include two full-time staff, one part- time all-year round and 35 seasonal staff, including lifeguards. “It’s a great undertaking, but we are very proud of this lido and so are the local people,” says Julie. “People are very loyal and many take out season tickets.” It is always local supporters who keep lidos going. And many battle against the odds.
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