STRATFORD PARK, STROUD

3rd August, 2016

Passion and pride is vital if you want to run an outdoor swimming pool well. The business models that apply to indoor pools don’t work for outdoor pools. Operators need to understand that they are talking to a different market, that the hot days of summer will look after themselves but that only passion, pride and creativity will bring in the life-blood that is revenue when the weather is less spectacular. Which, in the UK, is most of the time. Indoor pools rely heavily on revenue from swimming lessons, that option is not open to many outdoor pools and therefore it is vital to think like a swimmer if you want to understand your market. I’ve swum in enough outdoor pools to know that in general terms community / volunteer run pools have passion, pride and creativity in spades. They are run by swimmers, for swimmers. Corporate run pools, in general, are not. The pool is an asset on a balance sheet, and those running them think of them in terms of profit and loss rather than passion and pride.

I came to Stratford Park, via an emergency pork pie stop en route, not really knowing what to expect. Stroud is a mere 45 minutes from home, and I work there from time to time, but I have never visited this pool before. In part that is due to the indecently short season of operation — May bank holiday to the end of August. That may well be just about the shortest season there is amongst UK open air pools and I really struggle to understand the rationale for keeping such a lovely pool as this closed for so much of the year. The exterior of the building is blank and characterless, belying the 1930s heritage that is only revealed from the inside looking out where the curved profile of the admission office elegantly watches over the pool. But there is a breathtaking glimpse of crystal blue water, and the graceful sweep of the original crescent moon diving boards, visible through the gate as you approach; if you can resist a tantalising glimpse like that then you are a stronger person than I.

I have heard from a number of swimmers that sometimes odd sections of the pool are cordoned off such that it is not possible to swim a full length. And that really is a crying shame as this as a 50m long, 17m wide spring-fed pool. A 50m pool is a massive rarity, with the nearest competition being just Sandford Parks lido in Cheltenham and indoor 50m pools in Cardiff, and the other side of Bristol; the latter two are rarely set up long course in public sessions however. So Stratford Park has a niche waiting to be filled by swimmers in training, but they’re not capitalising on that. They don’t even mention, on their website, that the pool is 50m long. I’m not sure they realise how significant that is, or how attractive it is to swimmers. I would cheerfully drive 45 minutes, on a reasonably regular basis, for use of an outdoor 50m pool. And I know I’m not alone. Add to that the fact that there is a huge free carpark right on the doorstep and they’ve got a winning formula for attracting swimmers from further afield that they don’t seem to recognise.

I was therefore delighted to see that there was a full 50m lane in. But only one. The rest of the pool was divided into 4 square sections, with swimmers using only two of them. There was no signage telling swimmers not to use the other two sections, but as there was only one lifeguard on duty poolside I am certain that swimmers must have been barred from those areas to comply with lifeguard to pool size regulations. I could, and probably will at some stage, write a treatise on why economising on lifeguards cuts nothing but revenue; it is a really short sighted cost-control strategy for pools to adopt because if your pool isn’t fully open people won’t fully want to come and swim there. I’m not sure that Stratford Park were cutting costs, however, because there were three other lifeguards sitting in the office when I bought my admission ticket. Given that amount of man power I was disappointed to discover that the changing area wasn’t very clean at all. I got there at about 2pm and I could see little evidence of it having been cleaned that day given the accumulation of fluff and leaves and small bits of rubbish under the bench in the changing cubicle. If I’d have known what lovely grounds the pool itself is set in I’d have skipped the changing rooms altogether and treated the terraces and lawns as a giant river bank. I’m a dab hand at changing under a towel so I can manage an al fresco change without frightening the children. There are a few benches around, and some more picnic tables would be an excellent addition to this site as it really is lovely enough to imagine spending the whole day dipping and picnicing there. That’s another aspect of the facility that Everyone Active, the operator, isn’t selling at all.

Personally, I was also delighted to discover that Stratford Park is unheated. A cool pool is a rarity in the lido world these days, so when my foot hit the water to discover it was around 20c I was thrilled. Earlier this year I went to Sandford Parks BECAUSE their boilers were broken, so in finding Stratford Park is unheated I feel like I’ve struck gold. I understand that commercial operators struggle with unheated pools, they fit the business model they are used to applying to indoor pools even less. But the growth in cold water swimming is huge, and people are increasingly taking on swimming challenges that require a degree of acclimatisation. There was a chap there who was in training for an English Channel crossing, so he wanted the cooler water, and if you tell people that the pool is unheated, and let them know that wetsuits are welcome for children and adults alike (or even have a few available to rent for the day), then most folk can, and do, get on just fine with an unheated pool — particularly on a site where they can stay all day and dip in and out if they want to. But the website doesn’t tell you that the pool is unheated, or that wetsuits are welcome, so if you are an occasional outdoor swimmer and expect all pools to be heated like indoor pools you’d probably get a bit of a shock when your feet hit the water.

I pushed off into water that is exactly what you expect from a spring fed pool; fresh, and crystal clear. The pool tank has the original 1930s concrete lining, with wooden ladders, and is all the more charming for that. I spent a very happy time following the blue line painted on the bottom, and enjoyed the novelty of the deep ‘end’ being in the middle of the pool. Having two shallow ends would, if both were open, make this a really family friendly pool. The diving boards are, like so many, not open for use but their graceful presence is lovely to see when swimming. I noticed the way that their white undersides reflected the blue of the water beneath and I felt a little privileged to have seen that.

As well as the channel training chap I also spoke to a man who clearly swims there regularly. He sparked up a conversation about bilateral breathing, and he also told me that he visits lidos all over the area, including Bathurst, Portishead and Shepton Mallet because Stratford Park opens so late and closes so early in the season. I told him that I am a trustee at Portishead and he said ‘ah, well — what you have there is a committee. Cheltenham have got one too. We haven’t got that’. He had clearly also noticed the pride and passion that is a hall mark of a community run pool, and he clearly felt Stratford Park would benefit from some of that. He wanted better facilities, he wanted a little tuck shop accessible from poolside — a brilliant idea at this pool and I heartily agreed with him that there is both the space and the need. It would make an excellent income stream, as the indoor lesiure centre on the site has a cafe but it isn’t easily accessible from the outdoor pool and when I did peep my head in it was the uninsipiring corporate offering that one so often sees at leisure centres. I didn’t stay for a coffee, not feeling the need for a side order of soullessness.

However, my new swimming friend also wanted the water to be heated. He felt the children would benefit. He may be right. I’m almost certain he is, and if Stratford Park invested in that I don’t doubt they’d reap the rewards. But there is more than one way to skin that cat, and I for one hope that Stratford Park stays unheated although if installing heating secures the future of this pool I’d be the first to wave the banners and cheer.

More than that, however, I hope that those who run it develop some passion, pride and creativity. I want them to think like swimmers. I want them to really make this pool thrive — because it can, it has everything on its side in terms of location, population and size. At present, however, I fear that Everyone Active are barely helping this important and beautiful pool to survive, let alone thrive.

Please go and swim there. Make the operator realise how much this is needed and valued. And if you are a regular Stratford Park swimmer, and any of what I have said resonates, please think about forming a user group so that you can try to effectively work with, and lobby, the operator to make this pool as special as it should be. I’ll be happy to help with that. Email me at lidoguide@gmail.com.

I’m afraid I took a photograph even though I had been told I wasn’t allowed to. There was barely a soul there, and the water just looked so blue that I couldn’t resist sneaking out my phone. I’ve emailed to ask for permission to go back and take better photographs, because there is so much to capture about this pool.

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