England is a nation of swimmers: we make around 80 million visits to swimming pools every year.
Liverpool was home to the first municipal baths, opening in 1829. Seventeen years later in 1846, the Baths and Washhouses Act granted local authorities the power to establish these facilities, and offered them the loans to do so. From 1880-1914, over 600 new baths were established – often rich in detail and innovation, with abundantly opulent interiors. A mixture of civic pride combined with a greater understanding of hygiene led to this boom in new pools.
The 1930s were the ‘Golden Age’ of lidos, with over 150 built, and another flurry of pool construction came in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Here are six of England’s best pools.
1. Health Hydro, Swindon. Grade II listed
Completed in 1891 for the Great Western Railway Medical Fund, Swindon’s Health Hydro played a big part in the formation of the National Health Service. It was paid for with compulsory deductions from member’s wages, giving them access to a dentist, hairdresser and surgeon as well as swimming and bathing facilities. Designed by JJ Smith it used red brick from the GWR brickworks; two Victorian swimming baths survive in almost their original condition.
2. Moseley/ Balsall Heath Public Baths, Birmingham. Grade II* listed
Of the three Swimming Pools currently listed at Grade II*, Moseley is the oldest and only one available for public use.
Designed in a Flemish and Renaissance style by William Hale & Son, it opened in 1907 to accompany the existing library (also listed) and is described as ‘epitomising the civic pride of the period’. Many of the original fixtures remain and local campaigners are working to ensure its future is secured.
3. Poplar Baths, London. Grade II listed
Designed for use as a pool in summer and as an entertainment hall in the winter, Poplar Baths was completed in 1934 to designs by Harley Heckford, Borough Engineer, and RW Stanton, Chief Assistant for Poplar Borough Council.
Architect Piers Gough described the baths as a ‘stunning building with its Hollywood style interior’. Last year it was removed from the Heritage at Risk register after a successful restoration project.
4. Tinside Lido, Plymouth. Grade II listed
This unique unheated seawater pool in Plymouth reflects the 1930s ‘golden age’ of Lidos. Opened in 1935 with a 55 metre (180 ft.) diameter, it takes in sweeping views of the coast and is decorated with elegant Art Deco changing rooms. It closed in 1992 due to declining popularity, but an active local campaign led to its renovation and reopening.
5. Saltdean Lido, Sussex, Grade II* listed
Another fine 1930s Lido, Saltdean is representative of later movements in Art Deco, in which buildings became more streamline and stripped of ornament. The architect RWH Jones is believed to have drawn inspiration from ocean liners and aircraft design: a popular trend in Moderne, where architects sought to represent speed and motion. It may also have been inspired by the De La Warr Pavilion, one of England’s first public Modernist buildings, just down the coast in Bexhill on Sea.
It closed after just two years due to the Second World War, during which it was used as water tank for the auxiliary fire service. It recently reopened and is midway through a community-led restoration.
6. Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, London. Grade II* listed
‘Exceptional in its breadth of vision’, the Crystal Palace Sport Centre was designed by the London County Council’s architects department under Leslie Martin, who felt a need for a centre dedicated entirely to amateur athletes. It was completed in 1964, and was one of the first 50m swimming pools in South England. Now listed at Grade II*, it has been described as ‘a concrete cathedral for sport’.
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