PORTISHEAD OPEN AIR POOL
Today’s Portishead open air pool is a vibrant butterfly, emerged from a muted 1960s chrysalis. A large photograph displayed in the foyer shows it in those early days– functional shades of blue and grey bordered in wicker fencing that doubtless made the teenage after hours dip an easily achievable rite of passage. It is plain from the number of swimmers in that photograph that the pool was popular, and the novel approach to heating the pool by tankering in hot water from a nearby factory, several times a day, is sure to have contributed to that popularity. This inventive use of a waste product provided swimmers with the luxury of swimming in 21°c water, at a time when the majority of outdoor pools were unheated. In 1969, when the factory closed and a less interesting, but more reliable, oil boiler was installed to keep swimmers warm it must have felt like the end of an era and the start of a brave new world. Not all that brave, however, when the iconic diving boards were closed due to changes in regulations. But they stand sentinel still, and cast a shadow over the deep end of the swimming lanes that can be a little unnerving if you’re not expecting it; akin to plunging into a cave. More than once I’ve pulled up short in surprise as the shadow lurched across my shoulders, goose-bumps prickling my skin despite the warmth of the water.
Around the turn of the century, in common with many outdoor pools, a period of decline set in, with underfunding and neglect threatening the future of a facility where thousands of people had swum, shivered, sunbathed, learned to swim and fallen in love. In 2008 matters came to a head, and it seemed that the pool would be lost, as were so many lidos before it.
The local community, however, were not to let it go without a fight. Ultimately, that fight was successful and a Community Trust took over. The pool re-opened in 2009, having benefitted from a TV makeover. The somewhat brutalist expanse of concrete forming the terraces and surrounding walls was lifted with a Mediterranean palette that lends an exotic air; I’ve been using this pool regularly for 4 years now, and I’m still beset with a carefree, holiday outlook every time I swim. The warmth of the colour scheme, and the warmth of the welcome from the volunteers who run this pool is augmented from April to September by the warmth of the water. A more environmentally friendly wood pellet fired boiler now maintains the water at a very comfortable 28°c; the shallow toddler pool is often warmer on a sunny day. When the boilers are turned off in September the pool runs cold water swimming sessions, and then the psychological warming that comes from the colour scheme, lit by a low winter sun, is very welcome. It isn’t hard to see why this pool has inspired so many artists with its geometry, setting, shadows and vibrancy.
The pool continues to go from strength to strength, and aside from paid lifeguards and a duty manager it is run entirely by the community for the community. The volunteers clearly love this place, and their enthusiasm rubs off; many of them have known and loved this pool for a very long time, and have stories to tell if you stop to chat. And please do stop to chat, this is a pool where you can grind out the lengths if you want to, there will be lanes in on all but the busiest days, but it is also a pool where you can linger. Idle a while on the terraces with a book, climb to the top and watch ships pass so close that you think you can touch them, and take tea and home-made cake in the community café – also run by volunteers for the benefit of the pool. You’ll leave feeling rested and re-charged.