All things bright and beautiful
My August lido roadtrip, in which I swam home from Lincolnshire
Deepest darkest Lincolnshire. Every single piece of wall space in this hotel where I am staying has been given up to a painting of an RAF bomber, a handsome squadron leader, or a bomb. Public rooms have names like ‘The Squadron bar’. Rarely have I felt more uncomfortably out of place. I walk out of the door and five minutes later I have never felt more at home: it’s 7am and my lido road trip has begun.
What did you do this weekend, Sally? In homage to John Cheever’s The Swimmer, I have driven over 100 miles and plotted a course back to London, intending to swim in as many lidos as I can in one day, while wending my way back home.
I’m in Woodhall Spa, and it’s 7am, and I’ve foregone hotel breakfast for my first swim. Jubilee Park lido is a stone’s throw away — it’s an immaculate 33m pool on a neat and tidy site, near a campsite. A dolphin shaped slide greets me and makes me smile. I wonder who the swimmers here are, who serenely glide up and down this sleepy Saturday morning? The lifeguard walks up the pool slowly, having an animated conversation with a woman who is doing head-up breaststroke. When she turns, so does he, chatting to her as she swims down again. I feel completely at home with these early risers, these water babies, these lido lovers, even though I am a stranger in a strange town. As others sleep, or munch breakfast staring blearily at paintings of World War II, we, the swimmers, are alive.
My second stop is Bourne: Historic Market Town. I park on the street and scurry down a path past Bourne Pétanque and cricket club grounds. I spot a high red brick wall and know the lido must be there. And true enough beyond the high wall is Bourne outdoor swimming pool. While everything around is red brick or a lush rain-fed green, Bourne pool — a majestic 50m heated pool with a deep deep end and no lane lines to corral a swimmer into disciplined lengths — dazzles and entices with its brilliant blue tank. Here in this secret world, cocooned by the red brick wall on one side and a tall hedge on the other, I am betwitched by the blue, by the magic of something so unexpected. My heart is lost. I want to stay here all day.
But I can’t stay, I have places to be. An hour or so later I’m in Peterborough, snatched from the secret world of Bourne to the middle of a busy town, to a car park that smells of deep fat fryers. Peterborough Lido makes a bold art deco statement in pale green. This is a place where fun is to be had. I bet this lido is an amazing place to be on a hot day. Today it’s quiet and slightly downbeat. I swim my kilometre and order a tea and toast from a café that seems to only sell fried food.
Cambridge is my next stop, to Jesus Green Lido. As I walk through the turnstiles, eager to swim, I notice a sign with a lot of rules: no petting, no smoking, no drinking, no photos, no changing on the poolside. Surely this is a place of enjoyment and relaxation? Unheated, narrow, and a spectacular 91m (100 yards) long, it’s like swimming down a long, blue, road — a thing that only happens in my dreams. I pause before I jump in to remind my brain that the water might be chillier than I’ve experienced today. It’s deliciously cool and welcome. A relief in fact. I set off for the other end of the pool, in the far distance, dodging leaves. I watch the world as I swim: lifeguards cleaning and painting and fooling about; a sauna; a few older men sunbathing, their backs pressed against the warm timber walls of the changing rooms; a woman reading a book. My 11 lengths done, I need to press on. As I pack up, a regular tells me breathelessly about her pool and her love for it, and we smile and talk about the delight of swimming knowing exactly how one another feels.
My last two pools are close together geographically and architecturally: Letchworth and Hitchin outdoor pools. They are like non-identical twins: similar but different, five miles apart and built within a year of one another. It’s incredible that these two medium sized towns each boast their own 50m long heated lido. Shhhhhhh. Redolent of a time when embracing the outdoors was healthy, and energising and fashionable, these lidos would have been unheated and exhilerating at the time but now are heated and more comforting. But their architecture still tells the old story — both have a sense of ample space, with gardens and terraces, picnic areas, pot plants and sun loungers, with vistas and skies. The sense of space, and of space to breathe, is palpable as you swim.
Hundreds of miles driven, and six lidos later, I’ve run out of time. I throw my kit into the boot of my car and head home. What a great lido road trip.
Every lido I swim in tells a story — of the history of the place, of the community it serves, of the people who habituate it. They are secluded sanctuaries; large and showy fun palaces; places to dissolve your stresses; places faintly embodying the spirit of another age. Above all they are populated by the people who love them. Nobody goes to a lido because they have to. These are the places that I, and many others, feel at home.