Refreshing – the Nene pool

Refreshing – the Nene pool

Peterborough’s outdoor aqua centre is a Spanish-themed treat  

Early on a crisp April morning Peterborough Lido is a shimmering dream. Cool air notwithstanding, sunbeams light the water, mature trees provide backdrop, and a handful of senior swimmers beat up and down its lanes through 500,000 heated gallons.

At 50 yards long, and unequivocally rectilinear, the main pool is pleasingly retro, embodying the proper proportions of municipal baths before the onset of waves and flumes. Only the depths seem odd, at least on a day when aqua joggers predominate. The 2.7m end is unusually deep; 0.89 meters of water at the other is noticeably shallow for swimming.

The buildings of Peterborough Lido are seen from the surrounding park. Sun shines on a circular pond with the tower of the pool building beyond.

Of course, the profile speaks of the elaborate board and slide complex that once towered over the deep end, with the rest designed for children to play. Make no mistake, however, its size and sunny sparkle conjure a watery magic sufficient to reward whatever journey has brought you here.

The pool and its ancillary buildings were Grade 2 listed in 1992 as one of the ‘few remaining examples of their kind’. The remaining stock of outdoor pools built by the emboldened city councils of the 1930s is much reduced, its true. More unusual in this case, however, are its design references. Few swim centres of this vintage took their stylistic cues from Spain, as they did in Peterborough. Perhaps elsewhere hacienda-style leisure facilities were not the first association that Iberia inspired in the year of this Lido’s opening – 1936?

Peterborough's open-air lido, seen from the side.

Today the two-storey range shielding three sides of the pool is in  trim condition, despite its slightly 1970s beige-and-Thames-green livery. On the occasion of my visit this this was amplified by a distinctly ‘Northern’ soundtrack. Al Wilson’s The Snake, Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) and, The Trammps Hold Back The Night are bangers all, but left me unconvinced that ‘Wigan’ and waterspouts belong together.

The gothic finials of Peterborough Cathedral, in whose grounds the pool was constructed, hover intriguingly over the surrounding trees. Its a reminder that this multi-faceted city of 180,000 was an ecclesiastical centre in Norman times, as well as a new town of the 1960s.

The Lido’s most unusual feature is its weather vane. Shaped to represent the ‘bird man of Peterborough’ it is a celebration of one-time lifeguard Walter Cornelius (1923 – 1983). A Latvian, Cornelius escaped from Soviet troops, rowing 400 miles through the Baltic sea under gunfire, before settling in the Fenland city after a time in a nearby refugee camp.

Peterborough Lido's 'bird man' weather vane.

Alongside lifeguarding and swimming instruction, Cornelius performed strongman stunts, and broke more than 50 world records for pulling busses with his teeth, eating raw sausages and skipping with weights around his neck. His most celebrated turn, however, was his annual ‘flight’ over the encircling River Nene on homemade wings. He dependably dunked in the drink.

Perhaps when next the Lido is ready for a make over it could take inspiration from Cornelius’ brash showmanship? Doing that could elevate it from a delight to a sensation.

A two-hour timed swim cost £10, booked in advance. When I last visited on a sunny summer’s day, the pool was at capacity and walk-in visitors were turned away. There are two smaller pools for smaller children and a large, grassed sunbathing and picnicking area.