An idyll in the heart of the city: Brockwell Lido

By Will Bedingfield

the lido

The story of the survival of the Brockwell Lido is one that features some exceptional characters.

Casey McGlue is one of these. Speaking at his West Norwood deli Beamish & McGlue, he sums up the theme of his 1994-2002 tenure when he managed the Lido with his work partner Paddy Casteldine : “It was a time when we let as many things happen as possible just for fun, not necessarily making money, giving people chance to try things out”.

McGlue’s period at the Lido is referred to as a ‘Golden Age’ in ‘Out of the Blue’ (Brockwell Lido Users (BLU) Publications), Peter Bradley’s book which lovingly records the history of the Brockwell Lido.

Casey had been a Lambeth sports officer and taught canoeing and fitness at the pool. He had met Paddy, who had done a stint as Lido duty manager, playing rugby. When they heard that the Lido was up for lease in 1993, the pair took the remarkably bold decision to apply for it. Perhaps even more remarkably, the application was successful.

In ‘Out of the Blue’, Paddy explains their logic at the time:  “We both thought, we’ve nothing to lose…I think the council saw the same, nothing to lose and everything to gain; they underestimated the drive and persistence and good fortune we enjoyed.”

Also essential to the Lido’s survival was a group of other dedicated Brixton locals. A Friends of Brockwell Park ‘Save the Lido’ team, headed by local resident Michael Boyle, collected 4674 signatures in 1993 – at the time the largest petition ever presented to Lambeth Council – forcing the council to look into possibilities of private running.

For the three years preceding all this, the pool had been a squat, hosting  art exhibitions, raves and poetry recitals. Most famously, avant-garde filmmakers Exploding Cinema used the space, including the drained swimming pool, for an art event attracting an audience of over 2000.

Under Paddy and Casey, the space lost none of its cultural dynamism.  “It was used in videos for The Lighthouse Family, for the Gallagher brothers; there were fashion shoots and flamenco dancers; we allowed graffiti artists to use half of the men’s changing room as a studio,” Casey remembers.

“We’d drain it in winter, it would get used for art performances by Chelsea Art College and hired out for wedding parties…people were getting together, getting married and getting divorced all in the space of time we were there.”

The pool was the subject of a serene Modern Times TV documentary and “a whole episode of the Bill was shot there …it had everything that you don’t want to happen at a lido – deaths, perverts and drugs.”

The partners’ flexible rent structure fostered community enterprises that still continue today: “If someone came to us with an idea we would take a percentage rather than charging a flat fee. It made it easier for them to start up new ideas.”

“It was a time when we gave a lot of people a start in their businesses. Caroline Burghard began Whippersnappers, the children’s classes, Nigel Gilderson started all the yoga, when hardly anyone was doing yoga, and Andreas started his Tai Chi. They’re all still there”.

The Brockwell Lido was opened on Saturday, July 10, 1937. The Mayor of Lambeth concluded the ceremony by throwing a fifteen year old school girl, Thelma Phelps, into the pool.

“Thelma was my sister in law, she is now 91. She came here on the 70th  birthday (in 2007) as a guest of honour”, remembers Jean Phelps, who first came to the Lido in 1943 when she was 10 years old. Today she is eating breakfast at the Lido Cafe with her grandson.

Of her own first experience at the Lido she recalls, “Coming with school. They told us to hold onto the bar and kick your feet…it was so cold I could hardly move.”“…for me, it hasn’t really changed at all”.

The Lido would remain open during the war, though the swimming galas, begun in 1942, would be cancelled in 1944 due to flying bomb attacks. From 1947-1968 he London Swimming Championships were held at the Lido, another period highlighted by Bradley as a highpoint in the Lido’s existence. (The competition moved to Crystal Palace’s superior facilities in 1968.)

“After the pool started leaking water in the 1980s it was closed for a planned £250,000 worth of repairs in 1984. Asbestos was discovered. The uneconomic cost of removing it meant the dangerous areas were simply sealed off to the public. Increasingly dwindling attendances year on year sounded the bureaucratic death knell in 1990. The squatters moved in.

“BLU saved the lido”, says Guy Wickett, a member of Brockwell Icicles, the Lido’s winter swimming group. He is referring to the most recent example of exceptional community action. Paddy and Casey’s decision that it was financially impossible to extend their lease in 2001 meant that the future of the Lido was unclear. The Lido’s rescue again came from passionate local swimmers: Judy Holman, Mary Hill, Yvonne Levy, who formed BLU in 2001. Their survey of Brockwell Lido visitors which demonstrated the community’s intense attachment to the space forced a dialogue with Lambeth Council, and ensured that there was community involvement in the choice of Fusion to manage the restored Lido.

The redevelopment has retained the pool’s modernist elegance while the leisure centre helps guarantee the Lido’s future financial stability.

There has always been a sense that the space inside the Lido’s four high walls exists somewhere else, away from the city. Howard Cunnell, a former Lido lifeguard from 1997-2005 and now a published writer, is currently working on a novel influenced by his time there. He remembers “In those days the Lido was a state of mind as much as it was a physical space. It was the beach – beach culture, beach life – transplanted to the inner city, with all that suggests.”

The Lido retains this atmosphere still today. On the hottest days, when the sky is a shade of deep and endless blue, a sky that can clear your head just by gazing into it, you can still entertain the idea you have left the city. On these days, there is spontaneity to the atmosphere, like an impromptu celebration. Intimate and ordered in the morning. Then, as the day wears on and the temperature rises and more and more guests arrive, gradually the place becomes a swirl of colour and sound and movement. This pace can keep up for hours. Then, as the temperature drops, the party begins to dissolve, eventually leaving just the Lido’s most loyal friends.

This atmosphere was perhaps strongest in the Casteldine/McGlue era, when the inimitable announcer Dangerous’s heavy Jamaican tones still boomed out over the intercom, coercing the guests into singing happy birthday to a stranger. Howard remembers “at night we fired up the barbecue and opened a cold beer and partied by the pool, under the summer moon.”

As Lambeth has changed, so has the Lido. But it has retained the sense that it is the pool which the community have fought to keep and which belongs to them.

The Lido this summer
The Lido this summer


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