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Lido days

We practically lived at the Lido that summer.

Every Saturday morning, we paid our 30p and clicked through the silver turnstile, bags bulging with hairbrushes, magazines and factor zero coconut oil. Although our mums thought we were sensible in our oversized t-shirts, ostensibly to protect us from sunburn, it was really just fashion. We’d barely heard of skin cancer and anyway, we were fourteen, invincible.

We quick-footed it through the damp changing rooms only wanting to get outside and bag the perfect spot, spreading our towels on the lawn, just far enough away from the boys from another school. There we stretched out like cats in the sun, claiming our little patch of turf, a safe homeland to return to after every freezing dip in the pool.

What did we do all day? I actually have no idea. We did swim of course – screaming at the icy water as we threw ourselves in - but we also chatted. And we rested. And we laughed - at everything and nothing. Therein lies the perfect day with friends.

When lunchtime came, we would eat warm squashed sandwiches before wandering to the kiosk for Orange Maid ice lollies, the congealed sticky juice running down our fingers as they melted.

Although I say ‘Lido’ now, for some reason we never actually called it that. For us, it was always ‘Woking Outdoor Pool’. Always. And we thought it would always be there. We barely even noticed the detail of the place, the 1930s building flanking one length of the property, the hexagonal arched entrance in the centre where girls turned left and boys, right.

What we knew was this: the mingling smells of cut grass, chlorine and cheap sun cream made it feel like a holiday every Saturday. Like we were somewhere else. Maybe even someone else. I don’t mean we were faking it. On the contrary, it was the one place where we could be who we really wanted to be. We could simply be ourselves.

Because when I think back to my teenage years, that was the place. That was the place that felt safe. Weirdly, safer than church even where, despite all the kindness, there was always some element of trying to keep up and wondering why I didn’t quite feel part of things. Safer than school? Oh let me count the ways.

Maybe it was the boundaries, the physical enclosure of the building on one side and trees and hedgerow all the way around the others. That combination of security and wide open space. The stillness of just hanging out. The freedom to soar.

The following year, it closed. None of us really knew why.

Somehow, we just accepted it. Somehow, we found other ways to entertain ourselves through the summer, hanging out in town or at each other’s houses, but it was never the same. Maybe whatever problem had arisen would be fixed by the next summer. Soon. But it never was.

By the time they came up with their hare-brained scheme to raze the lido to the ground (how exactly do you raze a swimming pool to the ground anyway?) I was away studying and travelling. Even still, I queried their over-excited rhetoric. The replacement indoor pool was going to be ‘just incredible’. There would be a wave machine for goodness sake! A wave machine! And slides!

Now, I enjoy the adrenalin of pre-slide terror as much as the next person, and I was all for them building a new indoor pool to replace the other indoor one – a grey cement building which sat bizarrely and self-consciously on a huge traffic island in the centre of town. Replace this by all means. But not the outdoor one. Surely, they wouldn’t build it at the expense of the outdoor one?

But, of course, they did.

As I read the papers, dissing my beloved Lido as grotty and outdated with its tatty changing rooms and cold water, the rough stone paving trampled by decades of bare footed swimmers, the tiny paddling pool for the littlies, I felt like someone was criticising my family. I had a sad uneasy feeling, something like grief. I couldn’t help thinking they were missing something crucial. Was it just me that felt like this place was part of our history? Certainly it was part of mine.

Maybe I should have said something but who would listen? There were so many ‘good reasons’. So many logical facts and figures. Maybe it was just me that felt so sad about it?

30 years on, lidos are all the rage, especially ones with quaint period features, and I wonder if they regret not listening to the handful of people who begged them to keep it. I can see it now, a lick of paint, refurbished changing rooms and a charming alfresco café where the kiosk stood. I wonder if they can see it too.

And I wonder how many other times I have ignored my instincts, squished them down to the bottom of the bag where they will not be seen or heard. I crush them because the other person is suggesting something that is so logical, so ‘right’ and sensible, that I feel stupid for admitting there is an uneasy feeling at the pit of my stomach.

How easily we doubt ourselves and the validity of our opinions. How easy it is not to trust our instincts. My own small voice would have made little difference in the face of hard facts and financial information. But it is always worth using that voice, however small.

For now, I can only savour my memories of shocking cold water and sticky Orange Maid ice lollies. Congealed juice sticking to the paper wrapper, intense aromas of artificial citrus and wooden lolly stick mingled with coconut oil.

Because when I think of my teenage years, that was the place.

IMAGES: Woking lido – The Lido Variations. Linocut print series by Clare O’Driscoll

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