O wind, if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Autumn is my favourite time of the year. The weather is still fine but the sun is no longer so strong and the days so hot as to produce the lassitude, discomfort and ill-temper of a typical August. The school holidays are over and people are starting to retreat back inside their homes. It’s cool enough in the evenings to make the fire worth lighting.

September is often a month of chilly and dewy mornings, beautiful blue skies and high cloud. Perfect for enjoying the outdoors before winter sets in, and a great time to go on holiday. Except for the fact that the activity I would most like to indulge in at the moment is currently becoming unavailable as outdoor pools and lidos up and down the country shut for the winter. And there’s always that nagging worry about whether they’ll reopen again next year. Our local council seems to realise what magnificent, historic lidos it has in this area but one 1930s pool on the fringes of the district closed a few years ago to make way for a “leisure facility” and, in the current financial climate, these things need watching with hawk-like concentration.

As a way of ameliorating a winter set to involve ploughing up and down the dark, cramped, unappealing nearby indoor pool working on my stroke instead of lounging around in the sun at the magnificent outdoor one, I’ve been making plans. We always go to places like Devon and Cornwall out of season and that means regularly missing out on opportunities to visit some of the country’s best outdoor pools. Many’s the time I’ve stared over the fence of one or other of the more well-known, wishing I could swim in it.

So, next summer we’re going to try to go between the months of June and September and take in the pools on the list that follows. Leaving Penzance aside, because that will probably require a trip of its own, I reckon that since all the others are in or very close to Devon they could all be visited in the space of a week from a central location such as Tavistock or Okehampton.

So here’s a swimming itinerary to satisfy even the most passionate free-range aquaphile (not to mention several great naturist beaches also located in the county):

Jubilee Pool, Penzance
This amazing structure is an attempt to reconcile many things – the mild Cornish climate and Penzance’s long history as a seaside resort; the fact that Mounts Bay faces pretty much into the unmitigated Atlantic Ocean; the coastline of West Penwith which is, with some notable exceptions, rocky, inhospitable and beset with dangerous currents and terrible storms; and the desire of people to swim in the sea wherever a sliver of possiblity presents itself. On a seemingly unpromising headland known as Battery Rocks, once home to a gun battery that protected the town against French naval attacks, borough engineer Captain F Latham went to work. In 1935, the year of King George V’s Silver Jubilee, an outstanding triangular sea-fed lido opened on this spot. Despite its exposed location and its propensity to be destroyed by storms, it is still there and combines breathtaking beauty with the sort of bulk and solidity you would expect from a former coastal defence. It is the largest open-air sea-water tidal swimming pool still in use in the UK and also notoriously cold. I have seen it many times but have never yet swum there, something I intend to put right next year, and am simultaneously looking forward to the experience and marvelling at the idea that I am going to get into the bloody thing without a gun being held to my head.
Tinside Lido and Mount Wise Swimming Pool, Plymouth
This coastal pool dating from the 1930s is one of the country’s best lidos with its pleasing curved design and outstanding buildings. It occupies a prime spot on the Hoe and is the very archetype of our modern image of the graceful Art Deco bathing spot. Having nearly closed in 1992 it has been extensively refurbished and is now an important tourist attraction for the town. Take a 360-degree tour here or get the opening times here. By contrast the Mount Wise pool seems understated – but doubtless would be considered a gem in its own right if it wasnt for its showier neighbour.
Summerleaze Sea Pool, Bude
This is a free, popular tidal pool built against the rocks on one of this north Cornish resort’s most well-used beaches. At a magnificent 90 metres by 45 metres it’s probably one of the larger pools that any of us will swim in. The depth is not consistent thanks to the fact that the sandy and rocky bottom shifts depending on tidal conditions. It has a long season running from the beginning of May to the end of September and enjoys lifeguard supervision during its official opening hours. I haven’t yet tracked down how the beach got its name – but it does remind me irresistibly of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.
Tunnels Beaches, Ilfracombe
In 1820 the problem of beach access in rocky Ilfracombe was addressed by a team of Welsh miners digging a series of four access tunnels through solid rocks to previously inaccessible coves. The Tunnels Beaches went on to become a Victorian seaside attraction, catering as they did for bathing privacy and strict sexual segregation in the name of preserving public decency. Today ladies can visit the attraction and bathe in its tidal pool – without needing to approach via a bathing machine or don a head-to-foot Victorian bathing dress modestly weighted with lead shot. Nowadays the men do have to find themselves a pair of trunks, however. Watch a film clip about the attraction here. And nearby is the Westward Ho! rock pool, to be found at the southern end of the beach.
Chagford Pool, South Devon
An large, open-air, river-fed swimming pool dating back to the 1930s and situated in Dartmoor National Park. This is an area with enviable outdoor swimming facilities but Chagford seems to be the standout establishment with the local parish council claiming on its website that it is the largest such pool in Devon.

Further reading