Formerly a Victorian leisure staple, the iconic British lido is seeing a renaissance…

Most architects have a real soft spot for dereliction. Whether it’s a crumbling castle, abandoned factory or an out-of-use water tower, there’s something about the derelict that gets a lot of us all hot under the collar. I think the main reason is potential. The bittersweet potential that’s long gone and the enticing possibilities of a refurbishment. These are the feelings that struck me last summer when I stumbled across the remains of Traie Meanagh.

Just along the coastal route from Port Erin on the Isle of Mann, the remains of this open air Victorian bathing pool sit disused, dramatically thrusting out into the sea. Both brutally ugly and stunningly beautiful at the same time, it’s a building surrounded by the beauty of nature, but within the protective arms of man-made walls.

The Victorians were interested in swimming for leisure and health, and it was they who built the first indoor and outdoor pools in this country, in simple decorative styles. Traie Meanagh was opened around 1899, towards the end of this period and was one of the earlier mixed-gender pools (this apparently being somewhat of a selling point). In its heyday, you could visit Traie Meanagh for a bracing swim, a swimming gala, diving competitions and even beauty pageants. A place for exercise, but also a social venue.

Plymouth’s Tinside Lido has recently been restored to its former glory. The building itself is bold but simple, framing the true star of the show – the glittering blue of the sea and the semi-circular pool. Tinside is a prime example of what comes to mind when we think of open air swimming pools; the archetypal lido – a glamorous, Art-Deco social venue.

Tinside belongs to a renaissance of outdoor swimming that was popular in the 30s, when municipal councils open lidos all over the country. And it wasn’t just in the UK where this fashion was felt. One of the most well known is the Icebergs at Bondi; a highly instagrammable lap pool enjoying fantastic views across Australia’s most iconic beach. But if Bondi is too busy, don’t worry, there are thirty four other ocean pools to choose from in the Sydney region alone: Bronte, Dee Why, North Curl Curl to name a few.

North Sydney Olympic Swimming pool – tucked just under the Harbour Bridge – is another stunning saltwater pool. Many credit the salt water as the reason that eighty six world records have been set there. Locals will tell you it’s the salt water’s added buoyancy that will makes for a speedier swim.

Back in the UK (and down under), the 30s building boom started to wane and towards the end of the 60s visitors were in decline. There are many reasons for this, including a lack of funding, but also foreign holidays becoming cheaper and more accessible. Given the option, people preferred a swim in the Med to an unheated Irish Sea water dip.

Now, we are seeing a third wave of popularity for outdoor pools. Obviously it’s a lot easier to dive into a pool in the balmy temperatures of Sydney than it is in North West England; but wild and outdoor swimming numbers are on the rise in the UK. The Outdoor Swimming Society’s membership has grown by 30% every year over the last decade. This is across the whole of the country, even the chilly north.

It’s a hobby that’s gaining popularity across different social and age groups too. Plus, it’s not just the activity but the venue that’s seeing a resurgence. Since the early 2000s there have been many pools saved, often due to public lobbying. London Fields, Droitwich Spa, Tinside, Saltdean and Clifton are just a few already opened, and more campaigns are ongoing. Evidently these venues inspire loyalty.

There have even been suggested schemes for entirely new lidos, including Shadwell Basin and a floating lido in the middle of the Thames. For this to be a true outdoor swimming era we need some new pools to be built with our own stylistic touches, not just renovations of existing lidos from yesteryear.

So what does the future hold for Traie Meanagh? It is certainly not universally loved and is often referred to as an eyesore. It’s not lucky enough to have the same number of devoted fans to lobby on its behalf as other pools, but there are voices calling for its preservation and renovation. Perhaps some other fanciful souls caught up in its romance whilst on a brisk countryside walk will champion its future. EJ

Words & Image Credits by Róisín Hanlon