As Jesus Green Lido turns 100 this summer, Miriam Balanescu takes a deep dive into its history and gets immersed in its swimming community
Of a handful of open-air pools built in the 1920s around the UK, one of the few that remains is right on our doorstep. Jesus Green Lido is no mere swimming pool. It not only has the accolades of being the largest swimming spot in Cambridge and one of the longest examples in the country (rivalled by Tooting Bec Lido, which is also 100 yards long), but now has also survived for 100 years. This summer, the pool celebrates its centenary – and all the changes and history that the humble lido has been swept up in.
“Until recently, people used to swim width-ways, much like swimming across the river,” says duty manager Kane Smith, explaining that the lido was initially built to mimic river swimming back when dipping one’s toes in the Cam was much more popular. “I think it was an attempt to be river swimming but more civilised. Normally with wild swimming in the UK, you’re going up and down a muddy bank. There’s nowhere to get changed – you’re kind of hiding behind the hedgerow and there’s nowhere to leave your stuff.”
The lido, however, gave bathers a chance to get the en plein air experience, while also having access to such luxuries as changing rooms. Soon, the river currents were cut off from the pool and a plant room was installed so the water could be chlorinated. Sides were built and a ‘basket system’ introduced. “Customers would put their belongings in baskets and hand it to us, which is quite antiquated,” explains Kane. “That’s finally gone now.”
Nothing compares to swimming in the great outdoors – there has been a resurgence in recent years, with articles, books – even poems – to prove it. “You’re more claustrophobic indoors, the pool is usually shorter and shallower,” insists Kane. “Also, because it’s open air, even if the pool is chlorinated, your customers ask why it isn’t – the smell of the chlorine is taken away by the fresh air. That makes it a lot nicer for some customers to swim in there, especially ones with asthma. It’s clean air, clean water and just a completely different experience.”