Britain's best lidos and seaside pools
Come on in, the water's lovely! Take a dip in one of Britain's most spectacular lidos this spring and summer with our pick of the best lidos in the UK, plus a brief look at its history and the recent lido revival.
Ah the glorious British Lido! Is there anything more refreshing, particularly in a hot city suburb, than the cold splash of an unheated outdoor 1930s swimming pool? Well, possibly eating an ice cream while you're still cool from the water.
In terms of atmosphere, lidos are as close to the beach as you can get without actually going to the beach. Children run around, adults sunbathe around the perimeter, groups of young people dangle their feet in the water.
We actually have those strait-laced Victorians to thank for introducing lido culture to the UK, although it wasn't really until the 1930s that the golden age of the lido began, as swimming for pleasure and socialising at lidos peaked in popularity. Now, we're in the midst of a lido revival, with many being restored to their former heyday glory – from stylish terraces to resplendent fountains, with the odd miniature railway and tennis court thrown in.
Find your nearest lido with our pick of Britain's best lidos and tidal pools in the UK, with a brief look at the history of the lido and its recent revival. Or, check out our wild swimming guide for plenty of advice on how to get started, water safety and the best places for a natural alfresco dip.
What is a lido?
A lido is an outdoor swimming pool near a beach or even in a city where people can swim and relax. Facilities vary but lidos generally offer basic changing rooms and showers. The colourful row of changing rooms surrounding Victorian lidos is an iconic image.
How many lidos there in the UK?
At the height of lido culture, Britain had more than 300 outdoor pools. The trend really took off in the 1930s, influenced by Germany’s Volksparks, which were dedicated to healthy outdoor pursuits. Lidos gave coastal communities a sociable, open air place to swim, protected from the rigours of the harsh sea. Today, there are more than 100 lidos in the UK, with more renovation projects in the pipeline.
What is a seaside lido?
Imagine a swimming pool with a difference. Instead of a shallow chlorinated puddle, the water is deep and crystal clear, with a salty tang. The changing room doors are painted in bright, primary colours and face onto the deck with bravado.
As you step down the art deco terraces, a fountain heralds your arrival, catching the sunlight to throw a rainbow arc over the water. The pool itself is round, or triangular, or just simply vast. The azure water might be warm, or might feel absolutely freezing, but one thing is certain – the view will be spectacular. Welcome to the British seaside lido.
Once, our glorious coastal pools were squandered, left to crumble after decades of neglect. Happily, the tide is finally turning and this summer there’s no excuse to miss an alfresco dip.
History of the lido
Lido architects employed in-vogue reinforced concrete to create clean, ultra-modern facades painted in dazzling white. Many were art deco classics, from Jubilee Pool, which stuck out like a ship’s prow from the harbour in Penzance, to Saltdean near Brighton, with its neon signage and large sundecks. Crowds flocked to swim in outdoor pools peppered along the British coast; at Hayle, Barry, Margate, Plymouth, Hastings, Exmouth, Grange-over-Sands, and even Gourock and Stonehaven in Scotland.
Hilsea Lido in Portsmouth was practically a resort, replete with putting green, tennis courts, and miniature railway. At the Super Swimming Stadium in Morecambe, a queue of people a mile long waited to surge through the gates on opening day in 1936.
However, the heydey was short-lived. After shutting during the Second World War, many pools were slow to reopen, if at all. The advent of cheap package holidays in the 1960s saw attendance drop off and triggered a downward spiral of under-investment, and closures that continued for 30 years.
By the time the Thirties Society sounded the alarm, publishing Farewell My Lido in 1991, the number of lidos and outdoor pools nationwide had plummeted to about 100. But all was not lost. In 1999, Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, a chronicle of the wildlife writer’s swimming odyssey across Britain, reminded readers of the unique beauty of the lidos.
“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.”
Waterlog helped kickstart a national trend for outdoor swimming and sparked renewed interest in preserving the great outdoor pools that remained. Soon there were new success stories.
Britain's best lidos to visit today
Jubilee Pool, Penzance
Jubilee’s triangular shape helps it withstand the wind and wave power from the surrounding seas. There is a shallow children’s section, café and terraces. It is unheated, so prepare for a bracing saltwater dip! jubileepool.co.uk
Portishead Open Air Pool, North Somerset
Portishead Lido was at risk of closure in 2008, but thankfully local supporters sprang into action and the lido had a make-over to reopen in 2009. This year it celebrates its 56th anniversary and is a popular swimming spot for all ages. Heated with green energy, come and enjoy a swim and a poolside picnic this summer. portisheadopenairpool.org.uk
Saltdean Lido, East Sussex
With a pop-up cafe and sunbathing terraces, Saltdean is on its way back to the glory of its heyday. There will be a full programme of events this summer, including live music. It was due to reopen as we went to press. saltdeanlido.co.uk
Tinside Lido, Plymouth
This stunning semi-circular saltwater pool is 50m in diameter, has three fountains to play in and commands a spectacular vantagepoint, overlooking Plymouth Hoe. Plymouth has a second coastal pool, Mount Wise, which offers free entry. everyoneactive.com/centre/tinside-lido
Stonehaven Swimming Pool, Stonehaven
This pool is the heart of the community and even holds in-pool Scottish dancing during the Stonehaven Folk Festival. The seawater is heated to a cosy 29∘C, making it beautifully warm, despite its position as the most northerly outdoor pool in the British Isles.stonehavenopenairpool.co.uk
Built in the 1970s, Teignmouth is a newer facility than most of the UK’s outdoor pools, and is heated. It runs fun sessions with inflatables, and also holds club training most evenings. teignbridgeleisure.co.uk
Lymington Open Air Seawater Baths, Hampshire
A 110m seawater pool with the focus on fun! Activities available include inflatable obstacle courses, aqua jousting, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking and water zorbing. There is a sandpit and children’s splash pool. lymingtonseawaterbaths.org.uk
Hayle Swimming Pool, Cornwall
Sitting next to Hayle’s sub-tropical gardens, the pool makes a refreshing stop on a day out, with Hayle Estuary Nature Reserve nearby. The pool has a new solar cover to help raise its temperature. hayleswimmingpoolfriends.org.uk
Hilsea Pool Portsmouth, Hampshire
Britain’s best swimmers trained at Hilsea for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. At 67m long and 4.5m (the deepest pool in the UK), it’s still popular with serious swimmers. There is also a splash pool for children. hilsea-lido.org.uk
Take a dip in one of Britain’s most historic and beautiful lidos. The grade II Bristol Lido celebrated its 10th anniversary in December 2018 after the restored Victorian swimming pool, which originally opened in 1850, reopened in 2008. The glass fronted restaurant and cafe surrounding the lido is the perfect spot for watching swimmers with a glass of wine. Enjoy a swim in the outdoor heated lido and sauna before enjoying brunch, lunch or tapas or a treatment in the lovely spa. A real oasis in the heart of the city. Booking essential: lidobristol.com
12. Cleveland Pools, Bath
First built in 1815 as a river-fed pool, Cleveland Pools is Britain's oldest lido. It has seen many changes, including a stint as a trout farm, but after some serious fundraising and millions of pounds of restoration, it's due to open in the summer of 2022. clevelandpools.org.uk/
Best tidal pools for swimming
If you fancy a wilder swim, there are some glorious tidal pools around the UK.
- Clevedon Marine Lake, North Somerset
- Walpole Bay Pool, Margate
- The Trinkie, Wick, Caithness
- Priest’s Cove Pool, Cape Cornwall, Cornwall
- Bude Beach pool, Summerleaze beach, Cornwall
- The Rock Pool, Westward Ho! Bideford, Devon
- Dancing Ledge, Swanage
- Shoalstone Pool, Brixham, Devon
What was the British lido revival?
Plymouth’s art deco Tinside Lido had lain derelict for 10 years in 2003 when, on the heels of a campaign that secured Grade II listing for the pool, the city council pushed through £3.4million plans to restore it.
Further west, retired county architect John Clarke had waged a one-man war to halt plans for a ‘fun park’ at Cornwall’s Jubilee Pool. The planners saw sense and the pool was restored to its former glory, reopening in 1994. When Jubilee suffered huge storm damage in February 2014 and was forced to close, campaigners worked with the local authority to secure £3million for repairs, much coming from the Coastal Communities Lottery Fund.
Martin Nixon, chairman of the Friends of Jubilee, said the pool had a special place in the community: “Generations of local people have met there. Kids play tag, get older and fall in love there. We have had four or five generations of the same family swimming there together.
“The pool provides safe sea water swimming for young and old. And it is a listed building of great importance – the best example of art deco modernism, in terms of architectural merit, in the country.” A new section heated by geothermal energy is set to open next year.
Saltdean Lido teetered on the brink for decades. When investors revealed plans to build flats on the site, the Save Saltdean Lido campaign lobbied English Heritage to upgrade its listed status to Grade II* and the council took back control. Local residents created a business plan and secured £2.5 million from the Coastal Communities Fund and £4.7 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to restore it. Saltdean reopens this summer and is to be heated for the first time.
Saltdean Community Interest Company chairwoman Rebecca Crook said: “We’re completely dedicated to the lido’s success and not letting anything get in our way to do that. The community are really behind us.”
Portishead, Hilsea and Stonehaven pools were also all threatened but pulled through thanks to vocal community campaigners
and volunteers who now help out with staffing and maintenance. Barbara Thatcher from Portishead Open Air Pool said: “Swimming outdoors is a really special experience. And there is safety here because swimming in the Bristol Channel is really dangerous. We love it. It’s absolutely packed out on a sunny day.”
But not all lidos had a happy ending. Along with Morecambe’s Super Swimming Stadium, the South Bathing Pools at Scarborough and Open Air Baths in Blackpool are gone. Exmouth Seaside Bathing Pool was replaced with an indoor facility and the Bathing Pool at St Leonards is now just a grassy field.
Elsewhere, the battle continues. Tynemouth campaigners have raised £150,000 towards reopening their pool but the project is expected to cost £5 million. Spokesman Barry Bell said: “Tynemouth is responsible for thousands of memories, from visitors spending their summer holidays by the pool to locals making the weekly pilgrimage for school swimming lessons. It’s incredibly important to make sure those stories live on.”
The fate of many other pools remains uncertain. Some are little more than a shell, others are fenced off but still filled with water, and used illicitly. Thankfully, the number of success stories is on the rise. At Stonehaven Outdoor Pool, the most northern lido in the UK, volunteers have been scrubbing and painting to get it shipshape for the summer season. This month sees the pool’s annual Aqua Kaylee, held during Stonehaven Folk Festival, with swimmers dancing the ‘Drip the Willow’ and the ‘Splashing White Sergeant’.
Rosee Woodland is a designer and freelance journalist. She lives in Bristol with her family and their Boston terrier, Ponyo. See specialises in knitting design and grading, and regularly teaches classes for A Yarn Story in Bath. She’s worked with leading brands in the craft industry including Rowan, Patons, Aurifil, Rico Design and Lewis & Irene. Her work has been featured in many magazines including The Knitter, Knit Now, Simply Knitting, Mollie Makes, Simply Sewing and Simply Crochet. When she’s not busy making she shares her wild swimming adventures at www.iswimlikeagirl.com.
Tanya Jackson is the acting group digital editor of countryfile.com and discoverwildlife.com. Her parents had a pet shop when she was growing up, so she learnt very young how intelligent rats are and why you don’t stick your hands near the beak of a cockatoo. She loves camping, hiking and watching the red kites soar over the Wiltshire hills.