If the past year has made me realise anything (aside from the importance of wearing a bra and not attempting to dye my own hair) it is that I am incredibly fortunate to live near the sea. Being able to spend time in the garden during the hot summer in lockdown was a huge blessing, I made an effort to read books with a feelgood story and setting, escaping to friendly seaside villages in Cornwall from the comfort of my chair. The one thing missing was a pool to cool off.
Friends had bought paddling pools and I lived vicariously through their photos, not that they would only paddle, have you seen the size of the pools you can get these days? I often imagined floating the day away on a lilo in my Asda tummy-control swimsuit in full view of the neighbours and the man on the crane building the new road behind our house (noisy buggers).
I even considered having a dip in one of our wheelie bins, like a low-budget plunge pool experience, the drawback being how to exit in a dignified manner in front of crane man. I didn’t ‘take the plunge’ (sorry) and buy a pool though. I was waiting patiently, hoping that my favourite lido would get the go ahead to open and save the summer.
My family always called me a ‘water baby’ as if I was in a swimming pool it was hard to get me out. I was lucky enough to learn to swim in primary school in our own outdoor pool that was built by teachers and parents. A simple structure that was 12 metres in length and so cold I believe a record number of children would turn up with excuse notes claiming to have a verucca during the less sunny months! I think I still have my 12 metre certificate somewhere in the loft! I eventually earned my 1000 metre award by circling the pool under the watchful eye of a bored teacher. Back then swimcaps were compulsory and I remember feeling embarrassed wearing one that Mum had insisted I wear, which was very bright with big colourful flowers bursting out of it all over. The best part was when the pool was open for us to attend for the tiny entrance fee of 50p over the summer holidays, the upkeep wasn’t so great during those last few weeks so when the pool had turned a horribly green shade and felt a bit ‘slimy’ we knew it was nearly time to go back to school.
As a family, we would go on trips to nice beaches and holiday camps where I would spend most of my time swimming, but my favourite day out would be at Tinside Lido. Built in 1935 the art deco lido is a stunning feature of Plymouth’s shoreline situated just below the iconic Smeatons Tower lighthouse and with just a wall separating it from the sea it is in the perfect location. My family used to pack food, drinks, blankets, inflatables and spend a whole day there. I have a photo of myself when I was very small posing happily on one of the water fountain features, which I have recreated many times over the years.
The atmosphere at the lido is always friendly and even during the cloudy and rainy days I have never had a bad day there. When the lido turned 80, the staff dressed up in old fashioned swimming gear, with long bloomers, stripey shirts, straw boater hats and charged just a penny for entry. They played appropriate music throughout the day such as Glenn Miller and Vera Lynn to really capture the mood. I love looking at the old black and white photos that are on display in the entrance showing how times and fashions have changed over the years but the lido has retained it’s old fashioned charm and simplicity. There are even the regulars ‘The Golden Girls’ who have their own section where they lounge on deckchairs and peg their cossies to the railings, bringing in treats on the last day of the season, they have become part of the ‘character’ of Tinside and I hope to one day be an honorary member of their ‘gang’.
Since moving back to Plymouth after over a decade away, the lido has become my ‘happy place’ all over again. My best friend and I taking her daughter and my niece for their first time and every year coming up with nicknames for the colourful inflatables we would take along with us. ‘Pineapple Pete’ was pretty large and lasted most of the season, he did us proud.
My 2020 holiday was to be a dream trip to India, when it was cancelled, I was sad but held on to the hope that my beloved lido might open, and we could salvage the season. Normally it would be open end of April/ beginning of May. I kept checking the facebook page for updates, and finally the news came that the lido will be opening in August. Phew! I was euphoric, it was all I wanted. I particularly love the end of the season as my birthday falls in September and I love to go there with my favourite people on that day. There were of course restrictions in place. We had to book, the showers were closed so we had to go back to the old school ‘knicker shuffle’ under the towel but none of that mattered. We had two glorious months of swimming and smiles. I even earned a 1km badge and received a coveted ‘I love Tinside Lido’ badge which I wear with pride. I went there on my birthday and shared out some chocolates with the team. On the last night of the season the lido stayed open until the evening and I had such a wonderful time, we were all given glow sticks and as the sun went down; I didn’t want to get out of the water or say goodbye but it was perfect.
Knowing I would miss my regular swim I joined a local gym that has an outdoor pool and that became my ‘me time’ over the autumn, part of the benefits being the nice hot shower afterwards and occasional visit to the steam room. Not quite the same without the sea views but the sound of the birds and the fresh air on my face means that I hardly ever went into the larger indoor pool. I became friendly with a few of the regulars, particularly one lady who told me her entire life story on our first encounter. Serves me right for being a ‘breast stroker’, nobody tries to strike up a conversation with someone doing backstroke or butterfly, but she did make the time fly, so I came back at the same time to learn more about my new friend’s divorce as we swam up and down.
Then January came and the gym closed. Determined to keep up my swimming I bit the bullet and swam in the sea. In January. There is a big community of sea-swimmers here (I’m sorry, I cannot bring myself to say ‘wild swimming’, it seems such a ‘Waitrose’ saying and I shop in Asda (Asders if you want to do the accent). The January swim had been so cold I began looking on facebook groups for tips on how to keep yourself warm. I have never been a wetsuit person. For a start as a woman of considerable size, I’d get through an alarming amount of talc to prise it over my wobbly bits and I cannot even begin to think about the struggle to get it off after being in the cold sea. Anyway the enjoyment of cold water swimming is the feeling of wellbeing you get from the water on your skin, it makes me feel so alive and happy. I bought myself some neoprene socks and gloves and a big pink float for visibility and I haven’t looked back (except to wave at my towel holder/boyfriend who would rather stay on dry land until at least June)
For me there is nothing as freeing and calming as gliding through the water, wherever it may be… Sea, gym pool, lido. The gym opens in a couple of weeks, the lido in a couple of months but the sea is for all seasons and membership – free.
If you have been thinking about it, look for local groups online, they are always friendly, there are people looking for swim buddies and best of all anything goes… colourful swimsuits, bobbly hats, wetsuits, lipstick and retro flowery swimcaps are now all the rage, who knew? My mum, back in my primary school days, that’s who!