Tooting Bec Lido

Published on 16 August 2011 in , , ,

Growing up in the North West of England in the 1980s there weren’t many oppertunities to swim outdoors unless you headed to the beach. And given the state of the North Sea at the time, you probably wouldn’t want to do that. So when I arrived in London and discovered that there were loads of outdoor swimming pools, well I was surprised. In 2002 I was even briefly a regular user of one – the Oasis Sports Centre’s heated outdoor pool was most pleasant, even when the ground was covered in snow.

Then in 2004 Catherine and myself bought a house in South West London and suddenly found ourselves just a few miles away from one of London’s treats – the highly regarded, iconic art deco Tooting Bec Lido. It’s even a star. Adverts have been filmed here whilst Guy Ritchie filmed part of Snatch there with Brad Pitt, and comedy legend Arthur Smith has even been interviewed on the Today programme on the poolside.

But in seven years in the area I’d never visited. It was time to rectify the situation.

Tooting Bec Lido (5)

Photo by Wandsworth Council and taken prior to 2002 by the looks of it. Creative Commons licensed.

Opened in 1906 as Tooting Bathing-Lake, the Lido is one of Britain’s oldest outdoor swimming pools and took on much of its current form in the 1930s when changing rooms and a cafe were added.

For most of the year its closed to the public, accessible only to the members of South London Swimming Club whose sterling work helped stop the Lido closing in the 1990s, but from late May until the end of September Wansdworth Council operate the pool and it’s open to all members of the public.

Sited in a corner of Tooting Bec Common, it didn’t seem to be the easiest of places to find and I spent almost as much time wandering around trying to find the Lido as I had spent walking to Tooting Bec in the first place.

Eventually I found its sleek, curvy, modern looking entrance, controversially installed in 2002 and replacing the original entrance which saw people enter at the deep end and get a grand view of the whole pool. Not that you can see any of this from outside as most of the Lido is hidden behind rows of trees.

Having now found my way in, I now had to work out how to get changed and I found myself in the small but modern changing rooms. On having got into my swimwear and headed outside I realised I’d made a major faux-pas as almost everyone else had used the iconic changing cubicles which lined both sides of the pool with their doors painted gaily in red, green and yellow. As there were no lockers or anything, most people had just commandeered one and hung their towel over the door to show it was occupied.

And there was the pool itself. Blimey it was big. Indeed Tooting Bec Lido is the largest swimming pool in Britain, and holds a million gallons of water.

I’d half expected it to be nearly empty but there were about fifteen people already swimming in the pool and I hesitated as I approached the steps that would lead me into the water. I hesitated a little because I knew something every potential swimmer in Tooting Bec Lido needs to know. See, the water heating system isn’t the greatest. Well I say “system”. The pool is heated by the sun, and by the sun alone. And those million gallons of water take a long time to heat. Generally a normal swimming pool will be 28-29°C. What the temperature of Tooting Bec Lido was that July day I couldn’t tell you exactly but at a guess, it was a lot less at about 16°C. And if you think that’s cold, it can get down to 3°C in Winter. And yes, people do swim in that.

Given the temperatures, many lido swimmers were kitted up in wetsuits although most of the visitors were as foolhardy as me and wearing normal swimwear. I managed to get in the water and set off.

In normal conditions I’m a strong swimmer. Not particularly fast but I can easily do 60 lengths in a 25m pool in 40 minutes quite happily. However given the colder water I knew things would be harder, but I made a slight mistake early on in doing breast stroke and putting my head underwater as I swam.


I didn’t make that mistake again and moved to a more sedate pace, keeping my head firmly above water. A whopping four lifeguards watch on, all presumably hoping that no one will need their help and that they won’t need to dive into that water. Every now and then they rotate round the pool, swapping with other guards who have been on a rest or looking after the kids area.

Two full lengths of the pool later and I stopped for a brief rest/warm up, before heading back on another pair and rest, and so on. Each length seemed to take absolutely ages and it was only later that I learned that each one was 91.44m long – I’d taken it to be about fifty for some reason!

After eight lengths my fingers and feet were beginning to feel a little numb so I took a few minutes out of the water to warm up again, before heading in for more. Having done twelve I got brave and started putting my head underwater again and actually started feeling a bit better about the swimming. When the sun was out it was lovely, with the water reflecting on the pool floor. So it’s just a shame it kept going behind clouds.

16 lengths done though my toes were beginning to lose feeling once more and I headed to the poolside to warm up – if you’re not used to the colder temperatures, staying in too long can be a big mistake.

Due to me thinking the pool was shorter than it was, I’d planned on doing 20 lengths but after sitting on a bench warming up and staring at my feet which were distinctly white, I decided I didn’t want to brave the cold water again so got dressed and had a cup of tea and a panini at the Lido Cafe where an ice cream fridge was stocked chock full of frozen chips, presumably ready for when the schools broke up and the kids arrived.

It took a noticeably long time for me to warm up again and even the tea didn’t help much. My feet were rather white and it would be a few hours before they began to feel normal once more. Totting it up at home I worked out I’d swum nearly 1.5km (roughly 58 lengths of a normal pool) in colder water in splendid art deco surroundings. And what more could anyone ask for?

Tooting Bec Lido is open to the public 6am-8pm in August, and 6am-5pm in September and costs £5.50 for adults and £3.20 for childs, OAPs and for adults arriving after 6pm. After that, you’ll have to wait to 2012 or join the South London Swimming Club.