Putting the community in community pool

The first of what may be a series of posts about community and water.

After recent posts on drinking water and groundwater, we’re going to focus on recreation in and on the water, and celebrate the communities around it.

At a time when civil society and public infrastructure are under threat from the privatization of everything, where we’re pushed to be consumers rather than citizens, it’s important to look for lessons in areas where community is working.

Last Saturday I spent a few hours with these amazing volunteers who are trying to get a community swimming pool built for the south end of our island.

I didn’t grow up swimming in a pool, and find myself in later life wishing that I had. Here’s the story.


My parents were swimmers. Inland industrial towns had municipal pools. They were often called baths, revealing their origin as Victorian and Edwardian public baths or washhouses. This was the era of civic pride. Swimming was encouraged and taught. My parents were from the northern steel town of Rotherham, and grew up going to the “baths” ( pictured below, and pronounced with a short “a” as in “apple” in the north of England). My father was on the swim team, while my mother got her life-saving certificate.

I grew up mostly around the south coast Navy town of Portsmouth. The small town where I spent my elementary school years didn’t have a pool. I did my swimming in a body of water called the Solent, similar in temperature to Puget Sound where I swim now. I loved open water swimming, or wild swimming, which we just called “swimming”, because it was the only kind we had, but I never learned more than a rudimentary breaststroke.

In my high school years we moved closer to Portsmouth, which had a Lido. The 1930s were the golden age of Lidos. 169 were built by local councils. They were open air facilities, open during the summer and drawing large crowds especially during the school holidays. Most closed as cheap foreign vacations became available, although lately there’s been a movement to reopen them; SALT – Save A Lido Today!

Ours was Hilsea Lido, pictured below.

I wasn’t a fan. It was crowded and noisy. Kids would steal your clothes from the locker room. I think I went maybe twice.

In 1961, the city finally built a pool, the Victoria Swimming Pool, but it was already too small for city of a quarter million people. I went a few times, but the culture was just like the lido, with no access to a structured swimming program.

My high school had an intramural swim competition for a couple of grades. We couldn’t lap swim at the Lido, and the new pool wasn’t available to us. We had an arrangement to use the pool at the Royal Marine Barracks at Eastney. Built in 1867, making it approaching 100 years old at the time I was there, it had the look and acoustics of a Victorian gentlemen’s toilet, with enough chlorine to bleach hair.

The fastest four to swim a length would represent the house. Alas our house was not Gryffindor. It was Smith. Yes, Smith. I made it maybe half way. Some kids couldn’t swim at all.

While these facilities existed, they weren’t really accessible to me. Too many bus rides to get there from my little town.

The Lido is currently “temporarily closed”, the Royal Marine barracks was converted into a luxury hotel, and the Victoria Pool has been demolished.

And now

The pool was replaced by a brand new leisure centre, where the pool is combined with a gym and courts for squash, tennis, and much more. These have sprung up all over the UK, and while some are privately owned, many are municipal, expanding the idea of fitness for all. Even my old small town has one.

Coming back to swimming as an older adult, I wanted to learn freestyle. That challenge has been complicated by the fact that we don’t have a public pool on our island in the Sound. I was able to pay for swim lessons at private health club pool, but not all have the means or the flexibility of schedule.

Children and adults here are as swim-deprived as I was in my childhood. The high school swim teams must take the first morning ferry to the mainland for practice before school. Of course there are no home meets. As for me in my childhood, the facilities exist, but they’re not really accessible. I wish for our community what I wish I’d had growing up.

And the future

Fortunately, a dedicated team of volunteers is out to change all that and bring the idea of fitness for all to our community. It’s a difficult process. While some of the cost will be paid by grants, the parks district will need to pass a bond measure..

The team was at the farmer’s market today as part of the voter eduction outreach for that bond vote. With many fixed income older residents and others struggling to make ends meet, passage is by no means assured. The response was very positive and gratifying, with a constant stream of interested community members at the booth.

It’s going to be a lift. In a society where public infrastructure and commons are under threat from private interests – public transportation, libraries, schools, beach access, drinking water – pitching a public pool feels like swimming against the tide. These volunteers are used to that.

This is a community that makes community projects work. The farmer’s market itself is a living example of that. While there, I ran into people I know from other community groups I’ve been involved with over the years. Hiking, choir, land trust, cycling, open water swimming, kayaking, all grass roots community organizations.

If that pool can happen anywhere, it can happen here. If you’d like to know more, check out the web site.


Of course there was a conversation about drinking water. I’m a magnet for those. A friend told me that his community had sold the community water system to a private water company. With only thirty households, they couldn’t raise the money for repairs. We’re in need of a community model for drinking water that works as well as the others here.

Did you enjoy what you read? What’s your swimming story? Does your community have a pool? Where is community working where you live? Join me in the comments!

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