When I dropped by Saltdean Lido last Saturday the poolside lawns were being mowed, the final licks of paint were being applied to railings and the first dedication bricks for the Lido’s ‘wall of fame’ had just been delivered... and were messing up the pristine grass.
Tomorrow marks a new chapter in the long and chequered history of the Art Deco pool: a soft reopening following several years’ closure, neglect – and nearly demolition.
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Opened in 1938, Saltdean is the only Grade II-listed coastal lido in the country and was described by Historic England as ‘one of the seven wonders of the English seaside.’
Its buttermilk curves are easy to love.
Sitting in a natural bowl on the main Brighton to Eastbourne coastal road, the lido’s curvilinear architecture is impossible to miss - which is exactly what architect RWH Jones had in mind when he planned his garden city by the sea.
This was the golden age of the seaside holiday and The Lido, and neighbouring Grand Ocean Hotel (later bought by Billy Butlin) were the star attractions of a between-the-Wars vanity project. Jones's seaside idyll was borne out in wide avenues with grand houses that fanned out into the surrounding parkland and South Downs hinterland.
Both the hotel and the lido’s main building buildings are curved, like Morecambe Bay shrimp, or croissants - depending on which side of the Channel you are facing. They are regarded by many as the finest examples of Modernist buildings in Britain.
A central two-storey building overlooking the pool had cantilevered terraces above symmetrical ‘wings,’ separated by a central entertainment rotunda with a ballroom for 200 people.
The little PLAY team are learning about heritage buildings. They are going to restore the iconic #saltdeanlido @SaltdeanLido @SaltdeanZone pic.twitter.com/M0w1Z1rf3Y— PlayPE (@Play_Primary) April 21, 2017
Even now, it's not hard to transpose the rotunda with its canopy roof for the prow of a liner set firmly on a course for France.
“Imagine, for people who could never have afforded to sail on the Queen Mary, what is was like to sit up there facing the sea and have high tea,” said heritage expert Deryck Chester during my tour of the site.
In its heyday the lido's sleek curves (the proper name is ‘streamline moderne’ according to Chester), neon signage and enviable sea-facing position earned it the moniker “the Hollywood of the south coast.” The Paid Holiday Act had not long been in effect, and here were pleasure seekers basking on a yellow-sand ‘beach’ and frollicking in purified, heated water that frothed from a three-tier fountain.
WW2 put paid to all that.
In 1942 the site was requisitioned by the National Fire Service and the pool used as a water tank.
The renewed pool is 42 metres long, 1.9 metres deep and - for the first time since 1940 - heated. When I visited, the water was a brilliant Hockney blue - thanks in part to sunshine but also to the original tiling, which has been restored. For the first time in 30 years the lido will open with a paddling pool.
beautiful new summer campaign from @Waterstones inspired by our lovely #Saltdean Lido #Brighton - #summerdays pic.twitter.com/ETr21Ubbsp— Saltdean Lido (@SaltdeanLido) August 2, 2016
Unlike most Thirties-built municipal pools Saltdean’s has a crescent-shaped length where swimmers access the water via gently sloping steps. “We’ve reinstated the original 40m tank which will appeal to serious swimmers as well as families,” said Chester.
It’s all a far cry from the period of decline brought the lido to closure in 2012. Forlorn, rusting and almost destroyed by bulldozers it was saved from demolition by a community-owned volunteer body, the Saltdean Lido Community Interest Company (CIC).
The directors, all professionals and including Chester and CIC chairwoman Rebecca Crook, formed the CIC six-and-a half years ago to wrestle a council-appropriated lease from the hands of a non-local developer who planned to raze it to build 102 flats.
Like to see how Saltdean Lido getting on? You can 8-11 Sept Heritage Open Days https://t.co/RQHY9rXq9d @SaltdeanLido pic.twitter.com/uZPRgQsoMo— B&H HeritageOpenDays (@BrightonHODS) May 24, 2016
The former rotunda was functioning as a gym and meeting rooms; the pool had been drained and left to run down.
“We had to convince [Brighton and Hove] council that people would use if it was looked after,” said CIC chairwoman Rebecca Crook. “We lobbied and lobbied and lobbied.”
Newsletters, social media, a solid business plan, strong community interest and sheer determination finally resulted in the CIC securing a 60-year lease to operate the site.
Funding has come from Heritage Lottery, the Coastal Community Fund and crowdfunding projects. Locals have turned out to buy vintage posters, tea-towels and mugs.
“The support has blown our minds,” says Crook. “At every obstacle people have backed us.”
After the unforeseen cost of a new electricity substation threatened to delay the opening the CIC reached out to the local community by asking them to adopt a brick for the Saltdean Lido Wall of Fame. Funding for the paddling pool came from The People’s Millions, after the CIC won a regional competition.
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But what visitors to the pool won’t see this weekend is the main building itself, whose facade is boarded up. Thus far £3.1m has been spent on restoring the pool, changing rooms and grounds. For Phase Two of the development, which will eventually open with a cafe and restaurant, £6m to £8m needs to be raised.
There are also plans to install a turnstile providing access to an existing tunnel that leads to the beach, while jazz and outdoor cinema is planned for the lawns; possibly ice-skating.
Before leaving I examined some of the bricks. Brian and Pat met and courted at the Lido. Married in 1966 they are still living in Saltdean. Their son has sponsored a brick. Another is dedicated to a postman of 40 years - Jack Elder.
A woman called Shirley writes: “Love Saltdean, hate swimming.” Naturally, there is a brick for a dog, called Gizmo Murphy.
The @saltdeanlido Twitter feed is abuzz. Hashtag 'childhood memories' is trending and people are hunting out their swimming costumes. There is capacity for 4,000 people this weekend and 3,000 tickets have been pre-booked. All that’s needed now is for the sun to shine this weekend - and that looks guaranteed.
There are limited tickets remaining for the opening weekend June 17-18, 10am-6pm (adults £5; children £1. Under two’s go free). The pool will then be open June 24-25 and July 1-2 from 7am to 7pm and then daily from July 8 until September 17. Tickets cost £7.50 per half-day session; concessions and children (ages 2-15) £5. All-day tickets from £8. saltdeanlido.co.uk