Cleveland Pools, the oldest surviving lido in the UK, has never been just a swimming pool; it’s been a place to meet friends, for many years the only place to learn to swim, and its history traces the culture of the times, the values around swimming and health and above all the importance of community. Emma Clegg meets with Chair of Trustees Paul Simons ahead of the reopening of the fully restored Pools
Paul Simons has established connections with heritage and with water in Bath. He was the one who put a team together in 1994 and persuaded the Council to support them to speculate on getting a bid together to build the Thermae Spa as a landmark millennium project. The Thermae opened its doors in 2006, a little later and more expensively than planned, but it is now seen as one of the destination jewels in Bath’s tourism crown, providing a modern-day experience of its famous thermal waters.
It’s a good job then that Paul has continued his water-powered heritage career into retirement, having for nine years acted as just one of the stalwart trustees for Cleveland Pools Trust and their project, launched in 2007, to restore Bath’s Cleveland Pools in Hampton Row – the country’s only surviving Georgian open-air swimming pool.
Paul, who has run the contracting side with the builder, contracts, architects and designers, with other trustees taking on different roles including fundraising and PR, explains that the campaign and the restoration have been beset by challenges and delays. But at all stages the project has been ferociously supported by the people of Bath, many of whom remember learning to swim in its waters in the 50s and 60s, at a time where there was limited public swimming.
The geographical location for the Cleveland Pools, originally known as the Pleasure Baths, was adjacent to the river in Bathwick and a result of the natural bend in the river where people used to bathe. In 1815 the casual swimming taking place there was formalised with the building of the first pool with accompanying buildings, funded by public subscription, which opened as a simple diversion of the river. “The Pleasure Baths site represented a secluded, romantic-style sanctuary for those in Regency Bath who desired privacy and the benefits of a freshwater, open air bath,” says Linda Watts in her Swimming Through History book, about the history of the Pools.
“The baths as constructed were a convenient and comfortable adaptation of swimming in the Avon, river water being diverted to flow through the original main pool, with steps for access. A filter was designed for the incoming river water and it is possible that springs came up from the base of the pool, mixing spring water with the river water flow. The original pool was half-moon shaped and was fed directly from the river. Changing rooms in the form of a crescent were created with a cottage at the centre, featuring an archway where visitors could be received.”
The symmetrical architectural design with its distinctive crescent shape has been attributed to John Pinch the Elder (1769–1827), who was working on elements of the surrounding Bathwick Estate and was also among the original subscribers to the Cleveland Pools. A significant milestone in the Pools’ development was the 1827 refurbishment, which saw the inclusion of a Ladies’ Pool with its ‘Perpetual Shower Bath’, with high walls obscuring the bathers from unseemly public view. The early female bathers at the baths were likely to have worn restrictive clothing that would have only been practical for immersion and little movement, but not active swimming. Mixed swimming was introduced in June 1913, seen as progressive and recognising the advantages of families being able to swim together.
Other notable dates included the construction of the Upper Pool in 1852–61; and the main pool being cut off from the river inlet in 1886, with a sluice gate to the outlet and a brief closure from 1898–89. In 1900 Bath Corporation’s Waterworks Committee bought the Pools for £100 to replace Darlington Wharf bathing space. Years later in 1967 the Bath Spa Committee took over from the Waterworks Committee when the main pool was given a concrete floor and the semi-circular cascade was constructed at its eastern end.
There were many characters who populated the history of Cleveland Pools – including Captain William Evans, proprietor of the baths in the mid-Victorian period, who was well known for owning a pet baboon; Lofty Harris, well over six feet tall who became superintendent in the late 1950s and was renowned for keeping order with ‘just a look’; and John Dagger, the Pools’ last superintendent who taught large numbers of Bathonians how to swim and whose outstanding contributions to swimming coaching and teaching was recognised by Queen Elizabeth II in the 1970s.
There were also many transitions of ownership, constant financial pressures, and numerous additions, improvements and repairs undertaken throughout the Pools’ lifetime, but for considerable blocks of the 20th century, particularly in living memory during the 50s and 60s, the Pools were used regularly for swimming by local families and children. The Cleveland Baths were seen as a social hub, a place to meet up with friends. Jenny Wyatt remembers her husband proposing to her one day in July 1963 after he emerged from the pool – she accepted! In the following years their children were to be regular swimmers at the baths.
Then in 1978 – despite a petition with over 1,000 signatures – the Pools closed, after the opening of the Leisure Centre and its swimming pool in 1975. The Pools were for a short time used as a trout farm, and were then threatened with demolition as an alternative to repair. In 2003 the Pools were completely derelict, hidden and overgrown, and Bath and North East Somerset Council – who still own the site – put it up for sale, when it was also added to the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register.
“The local community, and particularly older Bathonians, those who in the 1950s, and 60s were children and who had learnt to swim here every summer, were outraged at the possibility of losing the Pools”, says Paul. There was a community uprising and thanks to the determination of three local people, Ann Dunlop, Janice Dreisbach and Roger Houghton, the Cleveland Pools Trust was formed in 2004 to rescue the pools from dilapidation. In 2006 its listed building status was raised from II to II* as the Pools were considered ‘particularly important… of more than special interest.’
After an 18-year campaign to save the Pools, a National Lottery Heritage Fund £6.8 million grant was awarded to help the site back into use as a community pool. Over this period The Cleveland Pools Trust has also raised more than £9 million towards the restoration, including additional funds from the National Lottery, Historic England, WECA and government agency Salix Finance. Funding was also secured for a full-time project manager for three years.
Thousands of supporters from far and wide, many of whom have happy memories of swimming here before closure, joined the campaign and today Cleveland Pools Trust has many volunteers who have given their time towards fundraising, local engagement, organising events and publicising progress. “It’s been a long, long haul of community activity, community engagement, and a fantastic volunteering effort from hundreds of local people over those 19 years,” says Paul.
As an open air, unheated facility, the popularity of Cleveland Pools in the past would have been defined by the weather conditions. Indeed it did have a reputation as being very cold (Ivor Gibbs remembers swimming there in the early 1950s and describes the water as freezing cold, but “warmer than the river”). The restoration, with the proposal developed by architects Donald Install Associates, is based on using the natural, bacteriological filtration of the pool water and employs a water source heat pump to extract heat from the adjacent river to allow bathers to swim in much warmer water.
The logistics of the building restoration were considerable. Paul explains, “It became a very complicated project. The Pools are tucked away behind terraced housing on Hampton Row, a residential cul-de-sac, and can only be reached via a small pedestrian gateway opening on to a steep and narrow pathway. So 80% of all the building materials came on the river, and 100% of all the waste was taken away on the river. So we had to deliver things to Avon Rugby Club, and unload them with a crane. Then a boat would push a floating pontoon with the materials on it all the way down here, so we were handling materials five times on average when the average building site does it once or twice at the most.”
The main renovation, which started in 2018, was completed in September 2022 with a celebratory opening swim taking place. In June 2023 Cleveland Pools was announced as a winner of the prestigious European Heritage Awards/Europa Nostra Awards, honoured as an ‘outstanding heritage achievement’; and were named Restoration Project of the Year’ at the Museum and Heritage Show Awards.
The final elements of the project, the installation of a water pump and a floating pontoon on the river, allowing the regular riverboats to stop at the Pools for people to swim, are now complete, ready for the Pools’ official opening on Sunday 10 September. “The floating pontoon is suspended in the river by the bank and anybody coming in a canoe or a boat, particularly the big double-decker river boats that go up and down every 20 minutes in summer from Pulteney Weir, will be able to stop there as a regular stop on the river”, explains Paul.
“But it’s not just a floating deck. It has two huge pipes underneath it with motors and they will pump the river water all the way around the site up to where all the equipment is, which is underground at the higher level, and they will bring the river water in there. And this water source heat pump will then take heat out of the water and then send it back through the other pipe.” The Pools will be open and heated from March to September, or when the weather turns cold. The original proposal in the early 2000s had planned that the pools would be closed for the rest of the year, but that has now been adapted. “Since that time there has been a massive boom in wild swimming and cold water swimming, and people think nothing about swimming up and down the river in a wet suit. It’s also established beyond doubt that it’s good for both your mental and physical health. And therefore there will be organised swims throughout the winter for wild swimming and other groups when it won’t be heated,” says Paul.
The day-to-day management of Cleveland Pools has been taken on by national operator Fusion Lifestyle, who operate existing outdoor swimming pools including Saltdean, Brockwell Park and Shepton Mallet lidos. Facilities include the main pool, a children’s pool, hot showers, a kiosk selling snacks and drinks, an open air terrace with tables and chairs, 12 changing rooms in the original crescent-shaped building, and fully accessible toilets. There will also – still in the planning – be a buggy to ferry wheelchair users down the steep entrance slope. Plus a hydraulic lift so that wheelchair users can enjoy the Pools. At the far end of the crescent building near the first aid room is the heritage learning space within the former ladies pool. Inside is some information about the history of the Pools. Tickets for swimming, costing from £4.50–£6, can be purchased under the archway of this building.
Swimming at the Pools will be free on Sunday 10 September. Tickets are available to book on the Cleveland Pools website. Find out more about the history of Cleveland Pools by getting a copy of Swimming Through History by Linda Watts, Lightmore Press (lightmoor.co.uk). clevelandpools.org.uk