Park Life: Summer floats by

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SOMETIMES I'M not sure why I go away in the summer - habit, I suppose, and a feeling that the children expect it - when my idea of perfection is only 10 minutes from home. I have been to places generally regarded as tropical paradises - Tahiti, Fiji, the Great Barrier Reef - but my Eden is an open-air swimming pool in south London.

Every time I click through the ancient turnstile entrance to Tooting Bec Lido, my heart soars at the expanse of water in front of me, as it does when I crest a hill on a coastal road and suddenly see a great spread of sea. The sheer scale of the Lido takes the breath away: 100 by 30 yards; it is the largest swimming pool in London, holding a million gallons of crystal clear water.

This scale subtly changes the experience of swimming, for each length seems like a journey across open water. If you swim for longer, you feel your muscles stretch and relax as your stroke settles into a steady rhythm; in conventional pools, the main marker is the turn at each end.

Even on a hot Bank Holiday when there might be 2,000 people in its grounds, the sounds are muffled or dissipate into thin air, and you are left alone with the great sky above you.

Built in two months flat in 1906, by a team of unemployed men under the inspirational leadership of a local vicar, the Lido retains the atmosphere of a rare social experiment that worked. There is certainly a broader cross-section of people than on most beaches, ranging from elderly regulars (some of whom carry on swimming through the winter) to teenagers who lie on the sunny side of the pool on hot days, to families who picnic on the grass, and single mothers who can't afford to take their children away from home.

There's no better place for people-watching, for assessing the latest developments in the art of the tattoo, for deciding what one really thinks of body-piercing.

There are plans to upgrade the Lido by means of a National Lottery grant, to introduce new training and restaurant facilities. It has been upgraded once before, in the Thirties, when a cafe and changing booths with brightly coloured doors were installed. I worry that the special charm of the place will be lost if it becomes slick and modern, and, inevitably, more expensive.

I like the Lido most about now, when I have returned home to the fading summer. In June or early July, however hot the sun, the unheated water is too cold, as if it takes a full season to warm through. By late August and into September, however, each day at the Lido feels like a gift, an extension, an elegaic coda to the summer past.