Lidos in Surrey - best outdoor swimming
PUBLISHED: 13:04 20 June 2013 | UPDATED: 15:07 09 June 2014
One of the country's few remaining original 1930s pools, Guildford Lido is celebrating 80 years since the town's community raided their piggy banks to help fund its creation. Here, child of the sixties Martin Claytor celebrates days spent swimming, socialising and soaking up the sun
It’s a hot, sunny morning and the school summer holidays have started. The beach is too far away, so it’s time to cram sandwiches and swimming gear into the duffel bag and head for the local outdoor pool.
This is Bookham in the 1960s and growing up in the Surrey village meant that there was a choice of open air pools within easy reach.
Over the last forty years, the once fashionable lidos, or smaller open air baths, have gradually disappeared, leaving only a relative few as going concerns. Many old swimming pools around the country have been demolished and replaced by indoor leisure and swimming pools – catering for people’s changing tastes.
This summer sees a notable landmark for one of the few that have survived and prospered, despite some difficulties along the way. When the doors opened in May, Guildford Lido began its 80th season – the first swimmers having christened the waters in 1933.
We will come to Guildford later, however, as summer trips for me started closer to home in the 1960s.
People passing along the Leatherhead Road in Bookham today may take little notice of a housing estate off the main road, despite its unusual name, Gilmais. Opposite what used to be Clack’s timber yard, along from Downs Way, Gilmais was the site of the village’s outdoor swimming pool until the early 1960s.
The pool and adjacent tennis courts were run as a social club in the grounds of a house originally owned by Gilbert and Maisie White – their abbreviated names providing the ‘Gilmais’. The club’s bathing area, with a water slide, made it a popular village attraction. Sadly, the facilities were closed soon after the turn of the decade and the land sold for housing.
This now meant a slightly longer journey – to Leatherhead and Fetcham Grove, where trips to watch the football club in winter were replaced by visits to the nearby open air pool in the summer.
Entrance was through an old iron turnstile which, in turn, led to a wooden refreshment stand with its array of drinks, ice creams and chocolate bars. From there, pairs of feet could be glimpsed under the rows of changing room doors at one end of the pool – as anonymous owners struggled to get changed. In front, the pool’s clear blue water beckoned – with its diving board at the far end.
Like Gilmais, the open air pool is no longer there – replaced in the 1970s by the town’s Leisure Centre. The amenities might be better and offer more activities in comfortable surroundings, but the atmosphere will never be the same.
A lasting legacy
Swimming at Guildford Lido meant a longer trip but the effort was worth making. Set in a park and surrounded by trees, the pool was larger than the others – it had an impressive diving board and the water always seemed warmer.
Unlike at Bookham and Leatherhead, however, the pool has remained and its forthcoming anniversary can be seen as a celebration of its unusual history and community ideals.
During the 1930s, lido building was in full swing across the country. With unemployment at a high level, the government saw the growing popularity of open air bathing as one way of providing much needed work for these men – using central funds.
Guildford’s lido was, however, largely funded locally and built by men from the area – its community focus evident from the start.
The initiative for the project came from the socially enlightened Mayor of Guildford, William Harvey, who recognised both the healthy benefits of open air swimming and the moral need to help the local unemployed.
Launching his ‘Work Fund’ in 1932, Harvey appealed to people in work to donate a small percentage of their earnings to put towards ‘work hours’ for the unemployed. His scheme received national coverage and the locals responded generously. Ideas to benefit the community were put forward and the suggestion of an outdoor pool was approved by the council.
In less than a year, the Guildford public raised over £7,000 – a very large sum in those days. With a further donation from the Borough Council, work could be provided on a variety of projects for over five hundred local men – paid at the going union rate.
The lido was the main task – work started at the end of 1932 and took only six months to complete. Appropriately, Mayor Harvey opened the pool in June 1933 by being the first to dive into the water.
The lido was an immediate success. The summer of 1933 was an exceptionally warm one and people flocked in huge numbers to use the pool during that first season.
Over the next few decades, however, numbers inevitably dropped and by the 1990’s the lido was faced with closure. In an echo of Mayor Harvey’s community spirit, local people fought against the move and formed the ‘Friends of Guildford Lido’ – saving the day by emphasising to the Borough Council how important the facility was to the area.
Today, the lido is run as a partnership between a private company, Freedom Leisure, and the council. Despite high operating costs, the pool is no longer in danger and further plans have been suggested to attract a wider range of visitors to the lido.
Guildford has been the Surrey lido success story – lidos such those at Woking and Surbiton have, like others, fallen by the wayside over the years. Surbiton’s large ‘Lagoon’, once a hugely popular showpiece venue, closed in the 1970s and after years of neglect was eventually demolished and has now been grassed over.
So with another summer arriving and hopes high for hot weather, towels; trunks and costumes can be optimistically packed for a day at Surrey’s last lido. With a bit of luck, we will all be doing the same in 2033 for Guildford’s centenary.
Guildford Lido, Stoke Road, Guildford GU1 1HB. Tel: 01483 449108