Chill factor: Tooting Bec’s million gallon antidote to overheating

After the longest hot stretch in recent memory, I had expected a pulsating throng at Tooting Bec Lido. Instead, it was a surprisingly select gathering of refugees from the sweltering Smoke who assembled at the venerable south London oasis on this July Saturday.

The Lido is among Britain’s oldest and largest freshwater pools at 100 yards by 33 yards (91m x 30m). It opened in 1906, having been proposed as a make-work scheme for local men. For much of its existence, London County Council was its operator, followed by Wandsworth Council and, since a campaign to save the facility in the 1990s, Places for People.

At inception, there was concern that the facility might disrupt views over the ancient commons. This was avoided by surrounding the pool with banked earth. The subsequent century of tree growth means that, save for the signage, it would be easy to miss the pool altogether.

Finding your way in through the new entrance, at the northern end, is to enter a shimmering scene of splashing water, sea-side colours and tanned bathers enclosed by tall deciduous trees. The encircling city slips easily from the mind.

There are brightly-painted changing cubicles on two sides of the pool, an entirely separate children’s swimming area and a delightful ‘wedding cake’ fountain. Provision at the cafe is slightly unreconstructed, but inexpensive, and capable of providing food to sustain a day out.

The pool itself is a pure delight. Its crystalline waters had reached 22 degrees centigrade when I visited, although the hearty South London Swimming Club practice immersion even when it is preceded by ice breaking. Its size does take a little acclimatisation. If the longest length you have ever swam is 50m, even a ‘there-and-back’ can seem like a marathon. After six weeks of sticky heat, however, the million gallons of water that fill the pool were a joyous antidote.

The pool is open to the public from May to September. At other times of the year, one has to be a member of the club to obtain entry. The pool is a seven or eight minute walk from Streatham station.