My excuse of taking notes and manning the camera sounded lame. 'People are getting more wimpish,' a woman remarked. Apparently it was quite normal to go open-air swimming in the middle of February on a biting cold day with flurries of snow.
The Oasis baths at Covent Garden in central London were clouded in steam and the water felt warm enough. If you can get over the initial Big Chill and make it into the pool it is, apparently, brilliant. I couldn't.
Around 35 people were splashing around, ranging from toddlers to pensioners. The pool was divided into three lanes, one 'fast' and two for socialising. One little girl in a bright pink costume and goggles made it her duty to see that everyone got splashed. Nobody minded.
But not all was fun and games. A handful of people were here on business. This was an official swim-in organised by the Big Splash Action Group. The idea is to raise awareness of the plight of the group's own pool, the Big Splash, an open-air, unheated pool in King George's Park, which Wandsworth Council wants to close down. The council plans to redevelop the site into an indoor bowls and tennis centre on the grounds that the pool is open for just three months of the year and only used on good days. Wandsworth also says that the pool makes a loss of pounds 100,000 a year. A planning enquiry will take place on 14 June.
Deirdre Parkinson, the co-ordinator, explained that there is a general trend to close down such lidos. The BSAG feels strongly that The Big Splash is something to be protected at all costs. It would like to see investment and upgrading of equipment, heated water and publicity to attract custom. The group believes the council's policy is to run it down. 'Wandsworth says that only 14,000 people used the pool last year but we have seen lots of people nip in,' says Parkinson. 'You have to make a real effort to pay.' The Action Group has been raising awareness of its plight through petitions, newsletters and activities such as today's swim-in. But Parkinson doesn't intend to stop there: 'We're prepared to lie in front of the bulldozers, let them run over our flippers first.'
Protester Ann Light feels equally strongly. She explained the attraction. 'It's a lovely little pool with murals along the side. It really is an undiscovered jewel in the middle of a recession- hit inner-city area. The sense of freedom is really uplifting . . . you are actually in the elements. And it crosses right through the community. People from the posh houses at the top of the hill come and kids from the estates too.'
In the summer, lidos come into their own. It's not just the swimming people come for. It's the sunbathing and relaxation too - a mini Ibiza for around pounds 2 a day (weather permitting). The pool also helps keep local kids off the streets.
One only has to look at the success of the Hampton pool in Middlesex which was closed down around 12 years ago and lay dormant for two years to see that there is hope. That pool is now heated and is successfully run by a voluntary board of management. It attracted around 100,000 people last summer season and over 1,000 turned up on Christmas day - admittedly attracted by the smoked salmon and champagne on offer as much as the swimming.
Londoners clearly believe that lidos really are part of a lost era which needs preserving.
The Big Splash Action Group (081-947 3071). Next swim-in: 11am 20 Mar, The Oasis, Endell St, London WC2
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