This month marks a special anniversary for enthusiasts of alfresco swimming. As Guildford Lido celebrates its 80th birthday, Con Crowley goes in search of Surrey’s lost outdoor pools
It is rather like the Beeching effect. Close the railways and then a few years down the line, regret it – when it is too late to go back.
Britain’s public lidos and open-air pools were culled by zealous politicians wanting to save money, but are now popularly regarded as a great amenity and important part of our heritage.
The golden age was the 1930s when the pursuit of health and efficiency had
a grip on Europe and modern architecture leant itself perfectly to creating these splendid new outdoor leisure facilities. Spectacular lidos with cascading fountains, cafés and sun terraces were built at Woking, Surbiton, Croydon, Twickenham and Guildford.
In their heyday thousands would pass through the turnstiles to enjoy the summer in the fresh and exotic surroundings that conjured up a carefree holiday atmosphere. They offered ordinary people a taste of leisure like nothing before, bringing seaside
holidays to suburbia.
But sadly none of these pools have survived apart from Guildford. This month it celebrates 80 years with a party that will witness a re-enactment of the opening when the then mayor Alderman William Harvey disrobed in front of
a crowd of 8,000 locals and became the first person to plunge into the new pool.
Like many at the time, Guildford Lido was built using unemployed labour but it was unusual in that the funding came from local people rather than central government. Like the rest of the world, Britain was in the grip of recession and in Guildford there were 600 men on the dole. Alderman Harvey sent letters to every household urging those in work to make a ‘gesture of brotherhood’ to their fellow townsfolk by donating one per cent of their annual earnings to the Mayor’s Work Fund.
In just over 12 months they raised £7,720, which provided the town with
a labour force large enough to build a pool 50 metres long and 20 metres wide. It took just six months to complete and provided work for 120 men.
Unlike other local authorities Guildford has remained true to its original commitment to an open-air pool and although the lido is now run in tandem with an outside contractor Freedom Leisure, its future is secure.
“Many of these 1930s lidos have proved to be financially unsustainable,” says Freedom’s marketing manager Rob Price. But he says Guildford is a good example of how these facilities can be made viable: “We have built a gym which is open 365 days a year and this allows us to keep the swimming pool going,” he says. “It remains hugely popular.”
Evoking the exotic splendor of these pools was the aptly named Surbiton Lagoon. Built in 1934 in 20 acres of parkland, its distinctive whitewash entrance, ornamental fountain and sun terraces created an enchanted oasis in suburbia.
The pool, which was located in Raeburn Avenue, Berrylands, had a full set of diving boards and a simple tall slide at the deep end and another smaller slide for children at the shallow end. Along the right-hand side was a set of sun terraces, concrete broad stairs with wooden boards on top. There was a lagoon café, and an ice cream booth.
In the 1960s it was used for swimwear and soft drink commercials and it was popular right up until its closure in 1979.
Equally impressive was the lido built in Woking Park (pictured right). It survived until 1984 but was closed and demolished to make way for the town’s new indoor Pool in the Park complex complete which has three slides, wave machine and water cannon.
It is typical of the many multi-purpose sports complexes introduced at the time which heralded a new age of leisure. The final decades of the 20th century proved particularly savage. Teddington, Twickenham, Chiswick, Ashford, East Molesey and Sunbury all lost open air pools as local authorities opted for these swanky new covered versions.
Public open air pools also existed in hidden corners of the county. There was once one perched on top of Box Hill. Built in 1930s, it served holidaymakers at Upper Farm camp site but was also open to members of the public.
“Imagine my delight as a child to discover there was a swimming pool on the top of Box Hill,” comments Anne Eastbury who remembers it in the 1950s.
“Although we lived in Sussex we would often have days out in Kent or Surrey. Box Hill was a favourite and I remember a swim on a particularly hot day, it was my first experience of an open air swimming pool,” she comments in an internet post.
Others remember it being in existence up until the 1970s but while the campsite still exists it is now full of mobile homes rather than tents and the swimming pool has been filled in.
But one of the oldest in the county has survived and it can be found in the centre of Shere. It was built by Lady Arthur Russell in 1875 so that her six sons could learn.
Later she presented it to the village so that the local boys and girls could also learn to swim. In 1899 the pool was handed over to the parish council and for the next 90 years it remained a public pool.
Sadly though it became too difficult and costly to run as a public amenity and it only survives today as a private club mostly for local residents.
So for the rest of us the choice is now limited to the local authority-run Pools on the Park in Richmond, Hampton Open Air Pool, Aldershot in Hampshire and, of course, Guildford.
In its heyday, slides were a popular feature at Guildford Lido. In a nod to its popular heritage, three new slides are presently being built, along with new toddler slides to mark its 80th year.
Guildford Lido’s birthday will be celebrated on June 21 (mid-summer’s day) with a 1930s style picnic and music from a live jazz band. If past glories are anything to go by, the party should go down with an almighty splash.
Tickets to the picnic cost £5. Call: