Derbyshire lidos past and present

Packing them in - a classic lido view from the nostalgic 'Liquid Assets' book by Janet Smith

Packing them in - a classic lido view from the nostalgic 'Liquid Assets' book by Janet Smith - Credit: Archant

Peter Seddon takes a dip in the open-air pools across the county.

Alfreton Hall and Lido from the air

Alfreton Hall and Lido from the air - Credit: Archant

Imagine the scene 85 years ago. It is summer 1934. Beneath a glorious blue sky bathers and sun-worshippers enjoy a lazy afternoon at the opulent outdoor swimming pool in the grounds of a luxury period hotel. The pool’s setting is perfect – part way up a pretty wooded slope commanding a view of fine cliffs and beautiful verdant surrounds. Flanking the inviting water are trees, lawns and lush planting. A stretch of sand for sunbathing completes the idyllic picture.

An archetypal vision of the Côte D’Azur – an exclusive hideaway in which globe-trotting author W Somerset Maugham might share a cocktail with a rising starlet of the silver screen... if only he can prise her away from Clark Gable.

Yet all is not what it seems. The gliding white-coated waiter serving the Gin Sling lives in a small terraced cottage in Cromford. That bronzed Adonis diving from the 4 metre board is a Chartered Accountant from Duffield out for a Sunday ‘jolly’. His stylish female companion reclining poolside hails from Hazelwood not Hollywood. And what strange tongue is the lifeguard speaking? ‘Ay up youth…’.

Enough misdirection – this 1930s Riviera touch is the New Bath Hotel beside the A6 into the Matlocks. Its new ‘Lido’ had just opened – why bother with the likes of Monte Carlo when you have Derbyshire? Who needs the deep blue ‘Med’ when warm natural spring water feeds a shimmering pool at Matlock Bath?

Early forerunner of the modern lido - Derby Free Baths 1873

Early forerunner of the modern lido - Derby Free Baths 1873 - Credit: Archant

The New Bath Hotel is still pampering guests – now a Spa Resort – but the outdoor pool itself closed a few summers ago. The hotel hopes to re-open it but is currently ‘awaiting permissions’ from various agencies. And full refurbishment would cost a great deal. Fingers crossed.

This cameo of ‘lido life’ reflects a far greater whole – once hundreds of open-air pools were spread around the country. Now many have disappeared for good – and some that remain are derelict or just hanging on. That is why those that survive – or better still continue to flourish – should be cherished and are increasingly designated Listed Monuments.

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The story of the rise, fall, and burgeoning revival of British lidos was wonderfully told by enthusiast Janet Smith in the 2005 English Heritage book Liquid Assets – now out of print and an elusive collectors’ item. That tells its own story. After a journey to near-extinction outdoor swimming venues are fashionable again – in the current vernacular ‘on trend’.

Of course outdoor swimming is as old as civilization. But the passion reached its zenith in the 1920s and 1930s when hundreds of open-air pools and lidos were built nationwide. But not all outdoor pools are ‘lidos’ – those that commanded the epithet generally had diving boards, good changing cubicles, ample lounging areas, and were designed to be ‘architectural’.

Outdoor pool at the New Bath Hotel at Matlock Bath

Outdoor pool at the New Bath Hotel at Matlock Bath - Credit: Archant

Many were classically Art Deco – built in a pleasing style broadly labelled ‘Ocean Liner’. Some of those at coastal resorts were wonderfully exotic – those in inland Derbyshire perhaps less so but rather glamorous all the same.

The word derives from the Latin litus meaning shore – and the original ‘Lido’ was and remains an island in the lagoon of Venice to which the city’s elite repaired for fresh air and bathing in the sea.

There were Victorian forerunners in the form of municipal pools. Derby boasted a particularly fine example – the Free Swimming Baths on Bass’s Recreation Ground endowed in 1873 by brewing magnate and local MP Michael Bass.

Within a walled compound were two large pools – one for men and one for boys. Outdoor bathing for females was then considered unseemly. These splendid pools survived until the 1940s when they were levelled and landscaped over – curious to imagine that vestiges of the basins yet lie beneath the greensward.

Hathersage Lido - Derbyshire's sole true survivor of a valued 'Liquid Asset'

Hathersage Lido - Derbyshire's sole true survivor of a valued 'Liquid Asset' - Credit: Archant

The next progression had occurred in the 1920s when councils began to provide paddling pools for children. In Derby the pool at Alvaston Park created in 1921 led the way – supplemented by those at Chaddesden and Markeaton parks. All proved a magnet for youngsters – two are now defunct but the Mundy Play Centre pool at Markeaton Park is as popular as ever.

These paddling pools were certainly much-loved but definitely not lidos in the true sense. The lido boom began in the 1930s when modern Britons had more cash to spare and more free time to enjoy. Attitudes to the outdoors had also evolved – fresh air and sunshine considered healthful – and ever more glamorous swimwear began to appear. Sunbathing, swimming, diving, and simply ‘posing’ became all the rage – and at the peak of this social and cultural phenomenon over 300 lidos and open-air pools operated throughout the land.

Derbyshire was blessed with its share. One of the most stylish was Matlock Lido on Imperial Road opened in 1938 at a cost of £12,000. The main pool measuring 125 x 50 feet was painted pale green to give the impression of sea bathing. Countless locals learnt to swim at this Art Deco gem – and away from the serious stuff all manner of high jinks took place, regular carnival events and gala days attracting large numbers. Think Butlins in the Peak – who’s for the knobbly knees contest? Hi De Hi!

Despite a wartime hiatus Matlock Lido was still going strong in the 1960s – on good Sundays it attracted 3,500 people, and typically 50,000 for the entire season. But change was afoot – as perceived obsolescence set in, a covering roof was added in 1972. As such it ceased to be a lido – it was finally closed and demolished in 2012, effectively replaced by the impressive Arc Leisure Centre costing £12 million – a superb facility… but something was lost.

The Matlock Lido story is a reflection of changing social trends. The mass availability of overseas ‘package holidays’ from the 1960s onwards altered perceptions hugely. As more people experienced exotic resorts the British lido proved less alluring, a pale imitation of the ‘real thing’. Were Britons becoming spoilt? User numbers declined and the buildings deteriorated. Nor did onerous ‘health and safety’ requirements help in an increasingly ‘blame and claim’ society – closures inevitably followed.

But some bucked the trend – not least the late entrant Alfreton Lido. Created on land formerly part of Alfreton Hall it was opened on 5th May 1964 by Prince Philip. Many Derbyshire residents retain fond memories of trips to Alfreton – and not just for the swimming. Reminiscences suggest the highlight of the day was the ‘chips afterwards’ at the café. A flume was added in the 1980s and the lido soldiered on – but time proved the victor. Alfreton Lido passed into history in 2002.

A similar fate befell the open-air pool in Grange Park in Long Eaton – opened in 1935 on the site of a former sewage works, but closed in the late Seventies. Alas the list continues – open-air pools serving Chesterfield and surrounds at Markham and Whittington Moor no longer make a splash. Ilkeston outdoor pool went the same way. Likewise a time-warp gem at Repton School – life moves on.

It is a trend tinged with genuine sadness but one with a silver lining, for these very closures raised a new awareness that extinction of an entire part of the built environment might be a real danger. Nostalgia for a ‘lost age’ began to be voiced. Conservationists took heed. The conclusions were unequivocal. Lidos were worth saving. ‘Friends of’ groups began to be formed – action plans were drafted.

Yet this ‘Liquid Assets’ feature might easily have ended badly with the fateful line – ‘there are no surviving lidos in Derbyshire’. But there is one beacon in the dark – and what a shining light it is. Mount the winner’s rostrum Hathersage Lido – consistently voted one of the best in the entire UK – a surviving classic.

Again – like Mr Bass’s Free Baths at Derby – Hathersage Lido owes its origin to a generous benefactor. Not a purveyor of beer, but the Sheffield manufacturer of razor blades George Herbert Lawrence, who made Hathersage his home. The lido was opened on 25th July 1936 as part of the King George V Memorial Field and its associated sports facilities.

Despite ups and downs over the years – and quite a few changes – the lido maintains a great deal of its original character and is going strong. Its water is heated at a constant 28°C and swimming takes place rain or shine, warm or cold. The small community of Hathersage is rightly proud of its own ‘Liquid Asset’ – a Blue Plaque in the village commemorates George Lawrence and an earlier plaque adorns the lido. Tragically Lawrence was killed in a German air raid on Sheffield in December 1940 – but his legacy has served many.

The future of Derbyshire’s only true lido looks secure – meanwhile the quest continues countrywide to restore and maintain similar facilities. Despite the rapid pace of change in today’s world – or perhaps because of it – a renewed yearning for ‘times past’ and ‘things lost’ seems to be gathering. Wherever you may travel a visit to a lido is well worth the effort – just dive in.