Take a dip in the Oldest Surviving Georgian Lido

  • | Simonette Doig

Cleveland Pools has been crowned one of the 2023 winners of the Europa Nostra Awards, described by the jury as “a good example of rescuing open-air pools for northern Europe” and “a great example for other similar sites across the continent”. But to get to this point, it has been a long and challenging path with a devoted community supporting every step.

A forgotten place

I remember my first visit from seven years ago. Signs of neglect could be spotted in every corner – it was a forgotten place. There were blocked openings, falling and missing ceilings and roofs, and rotten timber, to mention a few. But aside from those ‘details’ and having seen some of the historical records, much of the original building had survived in a remarkably unaltered condition, bringing lots of potential to our urgent drive to bring the pools back to life.

The Cleveland Pools is a Georgian gem considered ‘the oldest surviving, public, open-air swimming baths in the country’. It dates back to 1815 and is Grade II*-listed. It was initially constructed in 1815, following a ban on naked bathing in the river. It provided a river-fed pool for men and a secluded spring-fed pool for ladies, fully screened behind high walls and with its own (and not visible to men) access.

The popularity of the pools decreased drastically in the late 1970s after the opening of Bath’s newly built indoor leisure centre. It was closed in 1978, reopened in 1983-84 and abandoned after a brief period as a trout farm in 1984. In 2003, the owner – Bath and North East Somerset Council – put the site up for sale, and by then, it was listed on the Historic England Buildings at Risk Register.

A community campaign

When the Pools were threatened with demolition, a community-based initiative to repair and celebrate the pools came forward. A devoted group of tireless volunteer campaigners founded the not-for-profit Cleveland Pools Trust in 2004 to save and rescue the much-beloved Pools. The Trust was able to secure £6.4 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF). With support from Historic England, Bath and North East Somerset Council and the community, more than £9 million was raised towards the restoration of the Pools.

A crucial part of the project’s positive outcome has undoubtedly been engagement. We worked with local communities, involving individuals and diverse groups; organising volunteers; educated people in the health, well-being and the benefit of the pools; promoting the importance of the project. This has been vital to achieving what it is now seen as an example to follow in other neglected sites.

An infectious enthusiasm

A fundamental piece of the project was my former colleague Peter Carey. His passionate affinity with the pools ensured that as soon as it was known to the public that there was a slight chance to restore the pools, he secured contact with the Trust and worked actively to become part of the historic restoration team. We submitted an adrenaline-fuelled tender with Peter Carey leading the Insall team of David Barnes, Mark Harris, Emma Naylor and Lucy Barron. The tender feedback was ‘As ever, the key deciders were Peter’s infectious enthusiasm, sense of fun, and familiarity with some of the trustees…’!

As part of that devoted group, I recall Peter engaged with the community and leading the restoration team in meetings, site visits, conferences, tours, and any event where he could help, encouraging participation, enthusing the locals, and bringing the project forward. Sadly, in 2018, Peter left us prematurely before work had started on site. Still, his contagious passion, drive and determination remained and inspired the Bath studio and all who had the privilege to know him.

Balancing protection and change

Our approach was to reinstate the site to its original use whilst adapting it to this century’s standards. But how did we balance the need to save and protect what was there whilst allowing for change and improvement?

We established that the simple and elegant Georgian crescent and bathing pools would remain the site’s focus with small-scale interventions positioned discreetly around the margins: a contemporary, respectful and sensitive approach to a unique context.

The crescent has been restored and updated, with spaces converted into offices and a caretaker flat; the former changing rooms on the ground floor have regained their original function, charm and practicality. The Lady’s Pool has been sensitively enclosed with a self-supported, contemporary transparent, lightweight STFE roof and repurposed as an Education and Interpretation space. Visitors can now enjoy a sky view and that sense of openness and protection which characterised the area originally.

Creating room for new intervention was an exciting challenge due to the site’s compactness, complexity and sensitivity. Some considerable alterations were needed to allow the pools to operate as a contemporary facility – a thorough, interactive and creative process ensued to develop various options to show the client, the broader specialists team and finally the wider public. We proposed an intervention to divide the main pool into adult and children sections, fully lining it within the original footprint. The underground plant room for the treatment and heating equipment was formed within the footprint of the former upper pool, creating the terrace for a new kiosk. A modest toilet block was placed in a discreet location whilst showers, bike storage and other facilities were also incorporated.

A welcoming and accessible place

Improving access to the challenging steep site was critical; a new mobility buggy-friendly path, carefully designed ramps and steps allowed better access throughout the site. In addition to the main entrance, a pontoon is being added to allow visitors and users to arrive by boat. The pontoon is the final piece of the puzzle, providing a second (and much-needed) entrance whilst allowing a sustainable heat exchange system to warm both pools using heat from the adjacent river Avon.

I most recently stepped into the Pools to celebrate their restoration. The crescent and its Bath stone looked grander than ever, the water so inviting I nearly forgot it would be chilly to jump in. The kiosk and terrace were thriving with people enjoying the views, whilst the shifted perspective of the Lady’s Pool was fascinating with its contemporary yet historical air, with the greenery starting to bloom.

Read the full 2023 Review here