In the week the UK recorded its second hottest day on record, London's lidos thronged. Lidos are not to be confused with 'outdoor pools', a phrase that – unfortunately, and possibly only in London – brings to mind some aspirant Miami-lite rooftop spot, on top of a sky-scraping hotel or an impossibly chic members club. 'Outdoor pools' are lined by gaunt models in bikinis and the chiselled offspring of oligarchs. None of whom are swimming.
A lido is everything a rooftop pool is not. As an aside, and to the extent of my knowledge, the city's trendiest private members' clubs operate membership policies that exclude lawyers, bankers and accountants from their cadre. Not content to be 'of', but hoping to actually 'be', the cultural 'zeitgeist', requires such clubs to instead court public intellectuals, creatives and media types. However, as City-folk are the only people who can afford the fees, and too many Speedo-clad academics belly-flopping into the pool tends to weigh on a venue's sex appeal, the stringency with which these clubs enforce the rules is questionable. Perhaps 'creative' accountancy passes as an art form in certain parts.
On second thought, a lido is everything a private members' club is not. Children splash, couples canoodle, grannies gossip, athletes train. And yes, chiselled men pull off their finest Spartan hero impersonations – yet, at the lido at least, The Only Way is Essex
hopeful can rub shoulders with the Made In Chelsea
hopeful. London's lidos remain one of the few spaces that are truly intended for the public at large. They reassuringly let us know that, while the local library might have closed, life goes on.
The lido seized the pre-war British imagination, with the concept of swimming pool as social leveller being understood from the outset. In a quote that came up for air in Janet Wilkinson's 2005 study Liquid Assets
, grandee Sir Josiah Stamp – upon opening a lido in Morecambe in 1936 – said: 'Bathing reduces rich and poor, high and low, to a common standard of enjoyment and health. When we get down to swimming, we get down to democracy'. (One can't help but wonder whether this line played any role in defence secretary Penny Mordaunt's decision to appear on ITV's ill-fated diving competition Splash!
Indeed, the very act of stripping down to bathing gear reveals the basic sameness of people, give or take the odd lump or bump here and there. But while personal and social improvement may have inspired the authorities to promote the pool project, their explosion in public popularity in the 1930s is testament to the fundamental appeal of the lido. Meaning 'beach' in Italian, lidos offered – and continue to offer up – something just a little exotic.
Before the widespread availability of budget air travel, a sun-drenched poolside would have been a luxury to many for whom a foreign holiday was out of reach. Today, the sense of exoticism is maybe a little different: part nostalgic, part derived from a feeling of dislocation – from the sense that it is not quite right to be faffing around outdoors in hardly any clothes, enjoying ourselves, in Britain!
However, the resurgent popularity of lidos cannot simply be put down to nostalgia. As Wilkinson explained ahead of the launch of her follow-up compendium on outdoor swimming pools, The Lido Guide
: 'We love the sense of community, the beauty of sunshine through water, the companionable solitude of the swim and the chat with other swimmers that seems to flow so much more readily when not constrained by a roof'.
Given the egalitarian roots of the lido movement, it is a sad irony that the renovation and reopening in 2006 of London's best-known lido – the London Fields Lido in Hackney – following nearly two decades of closure, has been beset by criticism for paving the way to gentrification. Personally, I prefer to view the community-led campaign to resurrect the pool as a local triumph that coincided, and perhaps succeeded in spite of, the broader move to gentrify the city. After all, very few central London boroughs have escaped the march of the hipster coffee bar or the luxury apartment development. Fewer yet have brought a community hub like this back to life.
To conclude, a word on the Oasis Sports Centre near Tottenham Court Road. Despite being described online as an 'outdoor pool', it is – in my book, anyway – most definitely a lido, and one of London's hidden gems. Discretely located in the midst of the city bustle, the pool is surrounded by brutalist 1960s housing and office blocks. As the summer heatwave inevitably gives way to the storm, it has two tricks up its sleeve: heated water and a sauna.
David Graves is a journalist from Edinburgh, living in London. His reporting is mainly focused on finance in emerging markets