While researching his new book on lidos, author and swimmer Christopher Beanland trawled and sometimes swam through hundreds of examples from around the world, from the iconic tidal pools along Australia’s east coast to high-concept pools on the skyline of Hong Kong. Here, he selects the six that stayed with him.
A swimming pool renaissance is underway. Now it’s not just the swimmer who is reborn but the pool itself. The old soldiers that have stood through the decades are now being appreciated in film and on the page. These are the lidos that provide a simple community service – they can be a place of peace in a frenetic world, an easy exercise option, a slice of concrete deck on which to observe the changing seasons and the differing angles of the sun. While we swim we can observe the ways the leaves on the trees turn from green to brown and contemplate how life sloshes around and stubbornly refuses to let you fully control it, how each length and each morning brings you closer to death yet makes you feel so alive.
The first public pool was probably the Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro in today’s Pakistan. This 5,000-year-old remnant of that great city of the Indus Valley civilisation looks, in many ways, just like today’s pools. The Greeks and Romans also swam and bathed, as did the Egyptians and Japanese. Ottoman hammams offered relaxation and 18th-century mineral spas in the Anglo and Teutonic worlds (Bath, Baden-Baden, Karlovy Vary) promised to cure ills before beta blockers and erythromycin. But until the 1900s, swimming for fun was rare. Baths were primarily places to wash – the name has lived on in England’s northern industrial towns, where going to the baths today means going for a swim, not to wash. But those bath days were also a time for a little relaxation in strained existences.
That mass washing of the 1800s and 1900s is worth noting because it laid a foundation for pool time being about leisure as well as lengths, about frolicking in the water too. Homes, Western ones at least, are all now built with bathrooms. But the camaraderie of bath day lives on at modern lidos where time by the side of the pool is as much a part of the experience as time in the water. Here are the six favourites I discovered while researching my new book.
The Rhone and the Saone both slither through Lyon, France’s elegant third city, before meeting at the confluence – once one of Europe’s busiest inland ports. The river banks have been under renewal for decades. The latest schemes include art galleries, offices and a huge museum. But this earlier attempt to bring the Lyonnais back to their riverfront dates from 1968. The former Piscine du Rhône (now the Centre Nautique Tony Bertrand) is big (the French love a Grand Projet), stretching for what seems like half a kilometre along a prime stretch of waterfront in the city centre, that in more money-minded nations would have been carved up, sold off, and coated in depressing real estate. Not here. A gutsy multi-pool complex is set off with tanning terraces and cafes, slides and fountains. The symbols of the place are the thrusting pylons which reach up into the sky and illuminate everything below at dusk. A long repair job in the 2010s fixed the place up to its former glory.
Of the all the most magnificent homages to Catalonia, this is certainly the most democratic, and for that at least George Orwell, that great describer of the chaos of 1930s Barcelona, would be proud. The pool was dug out before Orwell arrived – these days it looks scruffy enough to have dated from those times, despite being remodelled several times for the Mediterranean Games in 1955 and the 1992 Olympics, the Games in which architecture made its mark and Spain made its return from the fascist wilderness it entered in the 1930s. The televised shots of the divers with the city behind them mesmerized many who have never visited. Those that have revel in the location atop the city’s mountain and ignore the leaks and the flaking paint.
The Piscine Molitor has been recently refurbished and is now part of the Sofitel/M Gallery branded Hotel Molitor. This revolutionary al-fresco pool was where the singers, dancers, prancers and chancers of the jazz age took the plunge into perfect waters. Despite its early popularity with the cognoscenti, it fell on tough times as its life went on, becoming almost a wreck and nearly being bulldozed in the 1980s. It stood idle and ruined for many years until its recent rescue and resuscitation. Designed by Lucien Pollet in 1929, its typically art deco lines evoked ocean liners and luxury; freshness, health and decadence – the bikini was debuted here in 1946 and the world never looked back (though it did look over its shoulder rather a lot at the local pool…).
Swimming among the skyscrapers is an elevating (literally) experience at Hong Kong’s foremost public pool on the west of Hong Kong Island at Kennedy Town. Catch a clattering tram down from Central and you’ll spot the huge pool complex looming up with its zinc-clad sides. The Terry Farrell-designed pool (he made his millions working on numerous projects in HK and China) plays that classic Hong Kong trick of getting handy with levels. Swimmers ascend long elevators and at the top is the full-size rooftop al fresco pool loomed over by dozens of high-rises but with panoramic views up the hills and over the harbour. An unmissable experience.
Toronto’s main outdoor baths were Canada’s biggest at the time when the doors were flung open in 1925. The baths were an integral part of Sunnyside Amusement Park, which also featured rollercoasters, games and sideshows – but its presence down on the shores of Lake Ontario was testament to the fact that hardy souls had been taking dips in the lake here for decades. Indeed the lavish Alfred H Chapman-designed Bathing Pavilion predates the pool by some three years, and was for bathers to change in prior to jumping in the lake. But then it became attached to the pool. Sunnyside was essentially Toronto’s riviera, but when the Gardiner Expressway was ploughed through and the amusement park closed in the 1950s, it slid into decline. The pool has soldiered on though and remains a summer treat for many Torontonians.
In LA where pools are everywhere – in gardens and on the roofs of top hotels such as the Freehand and the Dream – public pools do not perhaps have the pull they do in other cities. Do not ignore this one, though. Built for the 1932 Olympics and messed around with for the 1984 ones: the Los Angeles (aka John C Argue) Swim Stadium is in LA’s Expo Park, next to the Coliseum, which also hosted both those games and an American Football Team, the Rams. Both venues will be back for the 2028 Olympics too. In the pool on the day I dived in: one hundred Hispanic kids learning breaststroke, the world’s first female roadie Tana Douglas (an Aussie who told me she’d just come from signing a book deal to write a memoir about life on the road with rock bands), 20 trainee lifeguards in Baywatch bathing suits, and one pasty British writer enjoying the sun.