The future of swimming – urban lakes and re-generated Lidos? #SwimmingWeek

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Thames-Baths-2Whether it’s global warming, cleaner rivers or just the need to get away from the trappings of modern day life stuck behind a desk, it seems there is a huge rise in urban swimming. In the summer it’s traditionally been the many lidos that have been our city’s beaches, particularly in London where dozens of these large outdoor pools still remain despite closures over the years.

But increasingly we are seeing people becoming more adventurous demanding to swim in lakes, reservoirs and rivers. Last year Stoke Newington’s West Reservoir Centre opened it doors for the first time to open water swimmers and this year it is open once again until October (see here). Hampstead Ponds, where there are three ponds (men’s, women’s and mixed) are particularly popular in the summer as is the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park which is open to members all year  (see here) and to the general public in the summer.

And while once The Thames was full of raw sewerage and pollution from shipping, now people are starting to talk in enthusiastic tones about turning areas of it into specially constructed tidal pools where people can swim safely (it’s now forbidden for people to swim in the tidal part of the Thames from Crossness in the East to Putney in the west without a permit from the Port of London Authority – see here).

It’s an idea that’s been mooted for some time now.  I remember the artist Tracey Emin talking about creating swimming pools called ‘The London Ovals’ on the banks of the River Thames a few years back. But now it’s actually taking a step closer to reality with architects Studio Octopi releasing plans of what a swimming pool in the River Thames could actually look like.

One of the ideas is for a pool near Blackfriars Bridge – close to the proposed super sewer (another super sewer has been planned for Shadwell to the east of the City). You can see what it would look like in the picture above. 

“The improvements in water quality open the possibility for once again swimming in the tidal Thames,” said Chris Romer-Lee of Studio Octopi, which is behind the Thames Baths Project (you can read more information about the project here). 

The design looks particularly interesting. The fixed pools would be split across two levels and sit on a concrete slab suspended on a steel frame, with the second adjoining floating structure free to rise and fall with the tide. The idea is that over time the supporting structure would weather and would become a home to fish as well as plants etc.

Currently the project is looking for crowdfunding on the internet to get off the ground, as with a similar project in New York, but I think it would be a great addition to the River Thames.


Above: The proposed King’s Cross Swimming Ponds

Nor is this theonly proposal for a new natural swimming pool to meet the demands of ‘wild swimmers’. Apparently, developers of Kings Cross have put in a planning application to Camden Council to create what’s being billed as Europe’s first manmade ‘natural’ pond smack bang in the middle of the regeneration site – see below.

If approved the pond which would be 200m long could be home to up to 163 swimmers as well as a whole host of wildlife. I guess the idea is to create a space which would rival Hampstead Ponds, just a couple of miles to the north. 

According to the planning documents: “A conventional swimming pool uses chemicals to kill micro-organisms in the water. This isn’t necessary in a natural pool where the cleaning work is carried out by micro-organisms which exist together in equilibrium.”

A birds eye view of what the King's Cross Pond could look like

Above: What the King’s Cross Swimming Ponds could look like

If granted planning consent at the Town Hall, it is hoped the pond would be ready for use in the next few months and then stay in place for 18 months.

Nor is London the only city where there are plans to create new urban swimming areas. There are also similar plans afoot for Berlin in The River Spree and New York’s East River. You can see an article that Gizmodo wrote on the seven cities that are making their  urban rivers swimmable again here

Oasis Covent Garden 2
Above: Oasis, Covent Garden. Now a popular outdoor and indoor swimming complex, it was on this site the first indoor swimming ‘baths’ opened

The history of the swimming pool

Like many of today’s sports, football included, it’s largely the Victorians we have to thank for introducing the concept of swimming as a sport to the British people – an activity that’s now enjoyed by over 3.5 million people each week.

Up until the 1830s it’s fair to say that the only swimming ‘Baths’ that existed were either for cleaning purposes or for rather more dubious intentions. Sure the Turkish Baths known as ‘Bagnio’ which opened in 1742 on the site of today’s Oasis Swimming Pools in London’s Covent Garden may  be credited as being Britain’s first indoor pool. But it’s fair to say that this men-only establishment saw very little swimming, and a heck of a lot of prostitution.

Swimming as we know it today as well as an activity for getting you clean (hence why people still refer to ‘Swimming Baths’) and keeping you fit too really didn’t begin until much later. The Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) which now governs the sport in the UK was founded in 1869 and in 1875 Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to cross The English Channel – although he swam it Breaststroke. Front crawl which was ‘imported’ from watching tribes in South America wasn’t introduced until nearer the end of the century and even then was considered un-British!

Swimming as a sport wasn’t really fully recognised until the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 and in Paris four years later where events such as the underwater race and obstacle race were held in The Seine. Only in the 20th Century did we begin to see the mass development of public swimming pools and today it’s estimated that in addition to pools in most towns and cities there are over 200,000 private swimming pools in people’s gardens – a figure that is increasing by about 5,000 a year.