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Brixton Beach: Polly Betton on the secret magic of the Lido

Polly Betton creates engaging, playful experiences for venues, brands and private individuals ranging from in-VR champagne tastings to sensory storytelling, tongue-in-chic country house parties and elaborate dinners in near-impossible locations. Described as a 'get together guru' by Harpers Bazaar, Polly is the co-founder and creative director of Edible Cinema. Polly writes for Run Riot ahead of the launch of Lido Lates.

It’s a balmy early summer evening. The sky is streaked with orangey-pink, the pool calm and still after a busy day of sunbathers, serious swimmers and excited families, the last of whom reluctantly cleared out an hour ago. My only company as I watch the sun set are two ducks, shamelessly luxuriating in 50m of open water.

Like many outdoor pools, Brockwell Lido is a little world of its own. Perhaps it’s the high walls that reduce chilling winds to a refreshing breeze. Perhaps it’s the proto-modernist architecture: a little crumbly around the edges now, but still stylishly redolent of the robust optimism of the 1930s. Stopping to dip a foot in the refreshing, clear water, the Lido feels timeless and secret.

Lidos have always been a little magical, places where social norms loosen in the gentle warmth of the sun. Exotically named after the famous Italian beach resort where Thomas Mann wrote Death In Venice, they were modern, chic proponents of good health and the new craze of sun worshipping. Even more importantly, Lidos were places of egalitarianism and safety, where women enjoyed unprecedented freedom. As Sir Josiah Stamp said in 1936 “Bathing reduces rich and poor, high and low, to a common standard of enjoyment and health. When we get down to swimming, we get down to democracy.” Herbert Morrison (leader of the London County Council at around the same time), developed an ambitious plan to create a “city of lidos”, every inhabitant living within a short walk of an outdoor pool.

As it happened, the 'city of lidos' was short lived. Most of the 300 or so outdoor pools that were built nationwide in the excitement of the 30s closed during the Second World War and took years to re-open afterwards, if at all. Those that did suffered drastically reduced attendance as international travel became more accessible, starting a cycle of under-investment. Later, local government spending squeezes in the 1980s and 90s saw off all but the hardiest.

Brockwell Lido is remarkable among the survivors because it was closed for only four years, reopening under the care of ex-council employees Casey and Paddy, bolstered by a petition with over 5,000 backers (no small feat in the days when there was no ‘click to sign’ option). The local community recognised what the council had failed to: Brockwell Lido is more than a place for a refreshing dip, it’s a much needed moment of escapism and a thread of shared history. Kids are brought by grandparents who themselves learned to swim here. Those kids splash, play, and will one day bring their kids and grandkids to do the same. Friendships are forged on the sun decks, people meet and fall in love over melting ice lollies from the striped hut.

I knocked myself down from a First to a 2:1 because my friends and I discovered Brockwell Lido in our final year and spent more time lazing in the sun than studying (I don’t regret a moment). My mother enjoyed illicit night swims in the local outdoor pool in Somerset as a teen in the 60s. My grandmother was notorious for blithely taking on the very highest diving board at the Tropicana, executing her dive perfectly but popping up without the top half of her ill-fitting bikini, much to her amusement. Our personal narratives are happier, richer, thanks to these places.

This summer over 40,000 people will visit Brockwell Lido to enjoy the same joyously levelling experience on offer since the 1930s. Self consciousness and anxiety melt away in the seaside atmosphere, giving way to the instant cameraderie of the beach. Magic indeed, 40 miles from the nearest coastline.

Lido Lates continues the tradition of democratising the outdoor swimming experience, occupying a slice of the day usually only made use of by visiting contractors and wildfowl. There are many pools in London where you can enjoy the sunset, but it’s generally an exclusive experience for club members or hotel guests. Lido Lates will allow anyone with a ticket to enjoy what is arguably the most glorious moment of the poolside day.

Even better, you can actually get into the pool (currently at a balmy 21 degrees) if you don’t want to just sit next to it. Or drift on it, as our after hours idyll will include a selection of outsized novelty pool floats. There will be music, street food, twinkling lights and comfy places to sit and enjoy a drink. The (aromatherapy!) sauna will be open for a post-dip warm up, and there will blankets to wrap up in as the cool night air draws in after sunset. The first Lido Lates takes place on the 15th of June 2018, with events continuing into September. Come and join us, we’ll be stargazing on the sun deck.


Lido Lates
Various dates from Friday 15th June 2018
Brockwell Park Lido
More info here