2,000 years



The sport that defined Britain

The History of  Swimming on Plymouth Hoe

The pier has now gone and so sadly have the swimmers, but the period between this photograph and the present day saw the extraordinary rise and fall of swimming popularity. A sign on the cliff top reads: "In 1812 there were bathing machines here, by the mid 1800s men stripped off to bathe and a patchwork of hards, steps and bathing huts had developed. Bathing was spread out to isolate the sexes. The tourist boom got into its stride between the wars and Plymouth's own lido was created. Able to hold over half a million gallons of water, it measured 180 feet across. Fresh saltwater was pumped in through three cascades. People flocked here during the war and in one night, more than 3,000 tickets were sold as people exhausted from clearing the rubble bathed in the pool. Due to our changing culture the popularity of lidos declined and Tinside shut its doors in 1991."

The seafront remained popular though and the steps and beaches were regularly scrubbed and cleaned to maintain its attractiveness to visitors.

The history of swimming on Plymouth Hoe Devon
Tinside Lido on Plymouth Hoe Devon - Wild Swimming History

In the end the city decided to renovate the lido and re-open it. As work commenced the pontoons were removed from the sea on the understanding that they would be returned just as soon as the works were over. However, when the lido reopened in 2003 it was decided to try and lure people away from the sea and to encourage them to use the glistening newly refurbished lido instead.

If the pontoons were returned, wild swimmers would have more readily gone back to the sea where swimming had always been fun and free. To get around this and to ensure attention focused on the lido, it was decided not to return the pontoons after all. The cover story blamed health and safety for this loss of amenity. It was reasoned that by placing the pontoons in the water people were being encouraged to swim out to them! What if someone were to drown? Thus health and safety was blamed for the broken promises and this was the beginning of the end. Having removed one of the most attractive features of the Hoe, health and safety concerns were mentioned more and more often. Even the paddling pool has now had its wall breached which means that both adults and children are left with only the sea or the lido to swim in. The diving stage was sadly closed and another board demolished. The concrete beach is neglected and covered in seaweed; yes swimmers have successfully been cast out from their paradise lost. I remember swimming here as a teenager on holiday, even in the rain. The lido was not a patch on the 'free for all' amenities even then.

Swimming Event Spectators Plymouth Hoe 1903

Years ago crowds delighted to watch swimming events as recorded here in 1903.

The Ladies Swimming Pool Plymouth Hoe History

The two tidal pools have been filled with concrete to stop wild swimmers jumping into them.

The two tidal swimming pools have been closed and filled with concrete.

Thankfully this American 'law suit mentality,' so evident today does not pervade the whole country. By contrast the sea bathing pool at Ilfracombe stands as testament to the fact that our historic swimming heritage need not be bulldozed after all. Here swimmers are told that there is no lifeguard. People are free to swim and play about in rubber boats. They can even take photographs, an activity much too worrying to be allowed at indoor pools! More's the point all are charged entry. Thank goodness common sense has not completely disappeared from Great Britain.

Plymouth Hoe Devon. A Mecca for outdoor swimmers
The history of Swimming on Plymouth Hoe, Devon
British Railways advertisment Plymouth Hoe Holiday Centre

Regarding the closure of the pools, it was reasoned that nowadays a cotton wool mentality is essential and that a lifeguard must at all times be present whatever the weather. Such pools it was thought, should have public access restricted when no lifeguard was available, to avoid the potential risk of lawsuits being raised by individuals (or their families) who might possibly get into difficulties having chosen to go in for a swim. Lifeguards, gates and fencing cost money and so the pools were quickly filled-in instead. It also seems that the Council were losing sleep over the thought of youngsters jumping into the water from the rocks surrounding the pools. Such adventurers would have much rather used the diving board, but as that was deemed out of bounds and was closed in by a security fence, they had to make the best of what was left. In fact one youngster tried to climb over the fence and injured himself in the process. Ultimately this led to the demolition of this landmark... what a shame. The individual involved, would I am sure, have avoided his injury if the fencing had not been put up in the first place, but then you cant blame anyone for that - can you?

Swimming History Plymoouth Hoe Ladies Swimming Pool
Wild Swimming at Ilfracombe natural sea water swimming pool
Wild Swimming at Ilfracombe   

In 2009 I returned to swim at the Tinside lido (September) just before boarding the ferry to Roscoff and what a contrast I discovered. How different things are in France!

Swimming and Diving France
Lilly decides to take a jump without checking the waters depth. Amazingly she was unharmed!

Upon returning to England I enjoyed a dawn swim at Plymouth Hoe. The sky and sea were fire red with the sunrise and I experienced an incredible swim.

As I turned back and gazed at the Hoe I could see just how devastating our modern attitude towards swimmers has been. Things have gone very wrong!

Diving Boards Plymouth Hoe History
Ladies swimming pool and water chute Plymouth Hoe history
Tom Daily on Plymouth Hoe
Tom Daily on Plymouth Hoe

Just how wrong could not be better illustrated than through the life of Tom Daily. When just seven he started diving on Plymouth Hoe and six years later he held the worlds attention as he won gold at the 2008 European Championships. At 16, he was one of the youngest members of Team GB since 1960. But what about the inspirational diving board? It was demolished on February 17th 2010. It was said that the boards could not remain open due to a lack of funds. Yet half a million pounds was found to provide a lift to the adjacent lido for use by disabled swimmers - despite disappointing attendance figures.

Tom Daily beside the diving boards that inspired his career
The social history of swimming in England 2,000 years

Tom Daley on Plymouth Hoe where he practiced diving. By the time he was ten he was winning medals galore. 

Plymouth Hoe Wild Swimming History