Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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 walking.

  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 regulars—the 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 boards—a 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 ducks—real, 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 and Saltdean.

  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 Zoo.

  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 dispenser.

  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 Pool—the oldest in the country, opened in 1860—is in peril of becoming a skateboard park, despite a recent petition from the citizens, with 3,200 signatures collected in just three days.

  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.


  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 water sprites.

  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 is—water—and 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 humanity.

  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 that is."

  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 its beauty."

3 December 2001

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