Curiosity and Summers Past; The West St Leonards Lido
Something about being out and about on my bicycle fires my professional curiosity about the world. Now, I’m nosy in general, which is why I took up photojournalism in the first place, but at home one tends to turn off those querulous seek-and-find-out instincts, or turn them down anyway. After all, home isn’t exotic. “There’s nothing to detain us here”, as they used to put it so elegantly in those Baedeker guidebooks of a century ago when the author was dismissing a place of little interest.
But hop aboard a bicycle, push down on the pedals and set off down the street and one’s perspective immediately shifts. The world becomes agreeably big again – as it was when you were a child – rich in detail and ripe for exploration. Even your own neighbourhood.
This solitary pillar beside the bicycle path along the West St Leonards promenade piqued my interest. Enquiring, I learned that it is all that remains of the once-spectacular West St Leonards Lido – a sprawling seaside swimming complex that opened to enormous fanfare in June of 1933. At the time it held one of the biggest swimming pools in Europe – some 330 feet long, 90 feet wide, containing 800,000 gallons of water and with a deep-end 15 feet deep to accommodate those using the 10-metre diving platform. There were cafes, a gymnasiam, a roller skating rink, undercover parking and seating for 2500 people in its great amphitheatre surrounds.
More than 30,000 people passed through the turnstyles that first week alone. It was an era of cheap-and-cheerful bucket-and-spade holidays by the sea, when lidos – stylish, curvaceous, typically art deco – were the the height of fashion amongst seaside resort towns.
But all that faded long ago. Despite all the glitz and glamour, or perhaps because of it, the West St Leonards Lido never made a profit except during that first glorious summer of 1933. Later on cheap flights to warmer, sunnier climes in Europe put paid to holidays by the English seaside and after going out of business twice, and standing derelict for years, the complex was demolished in the 1980s. Now all that remains is a weedy plot, this lonely column and a story nearly forgotten.