“The sun set long ago on the heyday of Britain’s seawater swimming-pools, but they retain their mysterious allure” Ken Worpole
I don’t know about you, but whenever I think about Margate I just don’t seem to be able to get the 1989 Only Fools & Horses: Jolly Boys Outing out of my head. It’s the one where the Trotters join other Nag’s Head regulars – Boycie, Trigger, Mike, Denzil et al – on a day trip to Margate. Kiss me quick hats, too much shellfish, the great Raymondo, the Villa Bella, and the trip to the infamous fun fair Dreamland (where you can see Denzil clearly shouting “f**k” as he goes upside down on one of the rides). Brilliant stuff. Comedy genius.
Twenty-odd years later we are going to spend a couple of days in Margate, firstly to go and see the amazing looking David Chipperfield designed Turner Contemporary gallery, as well as to try and get a swim somewhere in the historic town.
The construction of the Turner Contemporary gallery on the harbour is part of an attempt to attract higher quality shops (and punters) to the old part of the town, the project also forms part of a plan to relaunch Margate through the arts and its social history. Dreamland is also set to reopen by 2012 to help attract day visitors back from London, and get a bit of a buzz back to this ghost town (once referred to by The Times as a “Dump”) which seems to be dominated by boarded up shops, decay and a complete lack of local government funding.
But while many of Britain’s faded resorts see art and architecture as the path to renewed prosperity, why do so few of them open their eyes to the architectural swimming gems? In Margate’s case its now derelict Lido and the stunning Walpole Bay Pool.
We checked in at the wonderful Walpole Bay Hotel to be as near to the sea, and the Walpole Bay Pool as possible. This historic Margate hotel was built for discerning guests in 1914, extended in 1927 and is now being lovingly restored to her former glory by the Bishop family. Apparently it’s where Tracey Emin stays when she visits the home of her birth – but don’t let that put you off.
Anyway, off to see what the Walpole Bay Pool has to offer. Avoiding the sea of dog excrement we amble to down to the sea front in the cold drizzle much associated with the British seaside.
Legend has it that Walpole Bay got its name because of a ship named after Britain’s first prime minister Sir Robert Walpole. The vessel was wrecked by smugglers that had stolen the valuable cargo after the ship was driven ashore during a gale on 17 December 1808.
The tidal swimming pool that dates back to 1900 seems to be all but forgotten by the locals – although it is sometimes used by people learning how to dive. Like much of the town it has seen better days. Sadly the elegant art deco funicular that used to transport swimmers from the town (or those staying at the Walpole Bay Hotel) has been closed down. According to one of its lifeguards: “Even on hot days, I’d describe the atmosphere as sedate.” It is such a shame as it is stunning. Some locals say that despite is yearly ‘essential’ maintenance, there are rumours that it is soon to be refurbished as the town becomes increasingly gentrified, and tries to take on the like of Broadstairs as ‘must-go-to’ UK seaside destinations. Let’s hope so.
Meanwhile, in the 1920’s the Lido at Cliftonville was completed to cater for the popularity of sea bathing. The Lido was built on the existing Clifton Baths Estate, beneath which ran many passageways used by smugglers in previous centuries. The underground complex consisted of bars, cafes and an indoor warm sea water pool with nearby changing facilities.
The Lido was hugely popular from it’s construction right through to the 1960’s. A winter storm in January 1978 which destroyed Margate Pier also wreaked havoc with the Lido, particularly the outdoor pool. The last time it was used, it was the venue for a series of raves in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Reconstruction work has never even been considered, and even today the Lido faces almost certain demolition. Check out these shocking pictures of the state of the Lido as it ‘stands’:
Times are changing in Margate. You sense that the Turner Contemporary has breathed new life into the town. Let’s hope the locals reconsider the role of their wonderful seawater pools and use the town’s heritage of swimming to encourage locals to petition the local council for funding to save their swimming gems. We have lost too many seawater pools – here’s the chance to save two of the finest.