Tuesday 14 July 2015

In the Swim Catherine Johnson

Honestly I should be puffing my book but as there is a small amount of swimming in it perhaps that's how I can make the link. You may be relieved that this post isn't about a cause celebre of Regency England but about getting your kit off and splashing about.
Szechenyi Spa Budapest

I love a swim me. Being not particularly good at any sport that involves throwing or catching, (or running for that matter) swimming is the perfect exercise. Of course until that hazy far off future when my books make me so much cash that I can to dig my own pool out in the garden I  have to make do with communal pools. This one, pictured above is probably the most fabulous I have ever been to; The Szechenyi Spa in the centre of Budapest.  This thermal bath is only one hundred years old, opening in 1913, just before old Europe imploded, styled as old Rome meets High Nineteenth century bling, one of the last gasps of Austro Hungarian excess. It is fabulous, apart from the outdoor pools in the picture, there are many indoor warm baths and if you suffer from arthritis or similar conditions, you can get visits on prescription.  I could have stayed there a week no problem.

The other thing that sparked this blog was a meeting in a production company office in London. You can imagine it; lovely modern office building in a tower block in Covent Garden, brilliant views all round, including the new roof of the British Museum to the north. This company overlooks one of London's wonderful and shrinking cohort of Lidos, the Oasis. Built as a municipal pool as part of a council estate in Covent Garden - in the 60s when central London was practically empty, the Oasis is a roof top open air pool without the pretensions or the nasty exclusivity of some (Shoreditch House I am looking at you). It may not have the grandeur of Central Europe but at least it's (relatively) cheap to locals.

The Oasis Pool London

What's sad is how many we have lost. Open air swimming was hugely fashionable in the post war years. A way of getting the huddled masses - who were revealed by World War One call ups to be unhealthy and malnourished - out into the fresh air.  Pools and Lidos went up all over the country -even at St Leonards a stones throw from where I live now- a massive seaside Lido which was loss making almost as soon as it opened.

St Leonards Lido in the 1930s
What's sad is how many we've lost. Finchley Lido, and Victoria Park are two from my childhood. But there is one last good news story. London Fields, the Lido that came back from the dead. It was opened in 1932, a 50 metre pool without the acreage for sunbathing that Finchley had, but perfectly serviceable. It had turnstiles which took 20p and it was heavily used up until the late 80s. It was a great relief for Hackney parents - me included.
London Fields Lido
But it shut in 1988 and remained empty for years. A group of residents campaigned and kept the premises viable, maintaining the fabric of the site and campaining hard, even when the pool was squatted.  Local pressure was kept up and in 2006 the pool was revamped and reopened. It has heated water and is open all year - even in the snow.  It may not be Budapest but there is nothing nicer than swimming on your back looking up at the blue sky as a flock of green parakeets scythes overhead.

Catherine Johnson's latest book is The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo, published by Corgi. Please go out and buy it now. If you can't buy it order it. There, that was easy. x


Sue Purkiss said...

When my children were little, there was an open air pool in Cheddar. Lots of people used to go there in summer, teenagers and families, and eat chips and chat. It was a real gathering place. But when it got to the stage where it needed repair, it was decided it should be closed, the land sold off for housing and an indoor pool built at the leisure centre. Nothing has properly taken its place.

That Budapest pool looks marvellous!

Catherine Johnson said...

That's so sad Sue. Cheap and accessible leisure (god I sound like a politician) is so important. I thought Budapest was lovely would def go back x

Lydia Syson said...

We had a lot of fun in that Budapest pool just last Easter - despite the air temperature - and actually swimming through the steam reminded me of rainy days at the Oasis years ago when I worked near that pool though in every other way, I agree, they are poles apart! But the good news is that other old lidos are on their way back - e.g. in Peckham: http://www.southwarknews.co.uk/news/architects-reveal-they-have-designs-on-peckham-lido/
(And I thoroughly recommend Princess Caraboo too!)

Unknown said...

Sue Purkiss - I remember the lovely pool in Cheddar from a summer holiday in 1972. Great for us kids and a shame it isn't there any more. BB