Posted on April 16 2019
There’s nothing like a lazy soak in a steaming hot springs. It relaxes the muscles and puts one in a blissful state. However, some prefer a more active interaction with water and choose to actually swim in a pool. Nice, flat, evenly heated water there, but yeesh, the chlorine. For habitual swimmers, it can result in dry skin and hair stripped of its sheen. For the outdoorsy, natural crowd, there is the option of lake swimming, or ocean swimming. The latter is too rough for many, so human engineering devised a solution for beachside water enthusiasts—salt water swimming pools, sometimes known as lidos.
The era that saw the flowering of such structures was the late 1800s into the early 1900s. The virtues of outdoor activity began to gain popularity as the Victorian Era faded. Even during that era, achievements such as the first swimming of the English Channel by Captain Matthew Webb in 1875 spurred others to get active. Before the 1930s arrived, several women had swum the Channel, besting Webb’s time. Swimming took on greater popularity both in Britain and the United States in this early 20th century society, and with improving economies, even the working man and his family could afford to take a vacation at the seaside. Coastal towns and cities around England’s margin, already featuring piers to let visitors get closer to the sea began building more and more impressive seaside public pools. It might seem unlikely that anyone would want to dip into the seawater that filled these pools given the generally cool climate of Britain, but remember, the Gulf Stream swings by that big island, and in summer the ocean temperatures can climb well into the 60s, Fahrenheit. That can be warmer than some waters off Southern California.
The pools grew bigger and more opulent as the competition increased to draw in not only the active swimmers, but also those who would come to sit and watch the bathers. Even small- and medium-sized seaside towns poured large amounts of their budgets into the attractions. These facilities were truly impressive—the pool at the city of Blackpool stretched for 376 feet, and was 172 feet wide. A certain portion of that was suitable for competition, and there were diving platforms above 15-foot-deep bottoms. Some 1,500 bathers could use the pool at once, and 8,000 could view the scene. No crowding in the changing area—it accomodated 600 at a time. Blackpool was among the largest, but another pool in Morecambe was made even larger.
The facilities, especially during the first decades of the 1900s, were often of classical design, with Greek pillars, arches, and domes. Perhaps the object was to evoke the physique of the ancient gods and the classical purity of good health. The physiques were largely hidden, though, under long woolen bathing suits (think of that term literally) that covered most of the body, even for men. Styles changed in both architecture and attire as the ‘30s wore on, and more modern-looking natatoriums, as they were called, began to be built. Influenced by ship and airplane design, the look became more sleek and streamlined. These huge tourist attractions of the 1930s eventually saw their decline, due to high maintenance costs as well as the shifting priorities brought by World War II.
The public pools of the American West Coast were generally more modest affairs, sized in the Olympic range, but San Francisco produced some impressive swimming holes. Perhaps the one best known to the world was the Sutro Baths. Tucked into a rocky cove at the north end of Ocean Beach, Adolph Sutro built a large ocean pool aquarium in 1894, and then extended the operation into a huge public pool and bathhouse, three acres in size. Sutro wanted to bring swimming to the masses with an affordable, safe, and attractive facility, but it being located in San Francisco, the temperature of ocean water even in mid-summer was not conducive to swimming. At Sutro Baths, however, swimmers could choose among seven different indoor pools, each heated to a different level. Ten thousand bathers could find their perfect temperature in the 1.7 million gallons that filled the pools. The tide could fill the reservoir for these pools in one hour. The baths were a state-of-the-art facility, and included not only recreation as a focus, but extensive displays of educational material regarding nature, art, and culture from around the world. It was something of a museum and a sports venue in one. Very popular in its day, the place fell on hard times as the economy soured in the ‘30s, and Sutro’s heirs couldn’t keep it up. Even converting the place into a giant ice-skating rink failed to save it. Finally, it burned down in 1966, and its ruins are now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
San Francisco also boasted of another heated saltwater pool, perhaps less well known, but the biggest in the world. The Fleishhacker Pool, at the other end of Ocean Beach, just a little over 3 miles from Sutro Baths, began business in 1925. It was a monster—1,000 feet long by 160 wide at the center and 100 at each end. Like Blackpool, a flight off the diving platform took you into 15-foot-deep water, amongst its total of 6.5 million gallons, filtered from the ocean. Powerful heaters kept the substantial open-air body of water at 72 degrees for thousands of swimmers and waders, all protected by twelve lifeguards who even had rowboats to aid people in danger. The pool was a popular place for competitions as well, but it was expensive to maintain, and as the number of customers dipped, it lost its economic viability. Still, during WWII, soldiers trained for amphibious assault in its waters. It slowly diminished as a functioning pool until 1971, when storm damage to the ocean intake pipes overcame budgetary limits. Sadly, it was filled in for a parking lot.
So the era of the grand, old, opulent seaside saltwater pool has passed, and most of the structures are long since gone. In selected spots around the world, though, they still exist, some in Europe, including Britain, in Canada (even Nova Scotia!), and in warmer places like the Azores, Australia, and South Africa. And who knows, maybe they’re coming back—a new world record tidal pool opened in 2006 in Algarrobo, Chile. It blew the record books out the back door at the time—it is over 3,300 feet long, 11.5 feet deep at the max, and covers 20 acres. That comes to 66 million gallons, or ten times the Fleishhacker Pool. Quite the lap pool for visitors staying at the San Alfonso del Mar Resort, which runs it. San Alfonso got topped in 2015 by the Citystars Sharm El Sheikh pool in Egypt, a 30-acre water body lined by white sand beaches, making it look more like an artificial lagoon than a pool. There are a few other crazy-big saltwater pools besides these, and a new era may be dawning as Crystal Lagoons, the developer of the Sharm El Sheikh pool, moves forward. They have plans in over 100 locations to build mega-complexes of entertainment, food, and water activity in both seaside and inland cities, using salt or brackish water as a source. These are meant as public-access facilities, and while they might not compare to the affordability of the lidos of the last century, they are not the sole province of the wealthy. Still, if you want a total bargain, just jump in the ocean itself—now that’s the biggest pool of all.
Take a break from your busy city tour of San Francisco to wander the ruins of the Sutro Baths. With this Destination Map from National Geographic, you can find it all. Available from Maps.com.
caption: The Tinside Lido in Plymouth, England was built in 1935 (entrance fee: one penny), but closed in 1995. It was renovated by popular demand, and reopened in 2005.
source: Wikimedia Commons: NIlfanion (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)
caption: The lido at Tynemouth on England’s North Sea coast, like many others, is no longer in use.
source: Wikimedia Commons: hayley green (CC by SA 2.0 Generic)
caption: Another one saved! The Saltdean Lido on the south coast of England might have become apartment buildings but is recently restored and now heated, too.
source: Geograph: Paul Gillett (CC by SA 2.0)
caption: The Ross Jones Memorial Pool, one of Sydney, Australia’s many oceanfront salt water swimming pools.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Dfrg.msc (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)
caption: The popular Copenhagen Harbour Baths are one of three such facilities in the harbor. Some hardy Danes even use them in winter!
source: Flickr: webjay (CC by 2.0)
caption: San Francisco’s covered and heated Sutro Baths in their heyday.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Daderot (Public domain)
caption: Ruins are all that is left of the famous Sutro Baths, but they still draw tourists.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Gregory Varnum (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: Seaside saltwater pools are having a resurgence. The one at San Alfonso del Mar Resort in Chile is beyond enormous.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (CC by SA 4.0 International)