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Matlock Lido: Liquidating a Former Tourist Asset*
One of a series of articles published in "Reflections" more than a decade ago
 
They were as much a part of the 1930s as dance bands and crooners, art deco and airships. Lidos, the streamlined, super swimming pools and keep-fit centres of the inter-war years unrolled rapidly across the nation from Hampstead to Harrogate and Plymouth to Southend. Keen to be in the vanguard, Matlock built one of the most ambitious and popular of them all, but now as a survivor of an endangered species for it, too, exists on borrowed time. Michael Fay
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The Lido was considered such a major development that the official opening in May 1938 was regarded as 'the most important day in the history of Matlock as a health and pleasure resort,'


PLANS ARE AFOOT [2002] to close the Lido and replace it with an all-purpose sports centre more in keeping with twenty-first century needs. The Lido's history has been troubled in recent years but it is likely to soldier on for another three years or so before being consigned to a footnote in Matlock's history of tourism.

The Lido was considered such a major development that the official opening in May 1938 was regarded as 'the most important day in the history of Matlock as a health and pleasure resort,' reported a local newspaper. Another newspaper also note it as 'an important development - a fine example of the district council's enterprise and progressive spirit.'

Tourist resort
And indeed it was. Throughout the 1930 Matlock worked hard to flourish as a tourist resort. The local economy and hundreds a jobs relied on tourism, then an expanding industry, in part based on the local hydros and more generally because of the introduction of holidays with pay.

But hydro facilities for the most part were closed to local people and to day-trippers who then, as now, were a key part of the tourist trade. (Interestingly the New Bath Hotel at Matlock Bath allowed non-residents to use its splendid thermal water swimming pool but the fees were too high for most trippers, and the style of contemporary advertisements was less than welcoming, as if in some way the hotel was nervous that it would be letting the barbarians through the gates).

Something more had to be on offer than the Hall Leys Park and boats on the river. The district council hit on the idea to build not just a routine, run-of-the-mill swimming pool but an ultra-modern lido with indoor and outdoor pools, terraces for sunbathing, diving boards, slipper baths and a café and restaurant. Lidos - prototype leisure centres - were proving hugely successful at other resorts, and it was time for Matlock to take the plunge - literally and figuratively.

Keep fit movement
Historically, lidos grew from the keep fit movement which swept across much of western Europe from the mid-twenties and really came into its own in the thirties. Originating in Germany, the emphasis was on keeping fit through relentless exercise including gymnastics, sun-bathing, fresh air and, the zenith of it all, swimming. Eventually, the obsession with physical perfection and strength took a sinister turn in Germany, but the basic philosophy was widely embraced in a more relaxed manner elsewhere.

It coincided with dramatic new ideas in architecture, also from Germany. The fussy, the intricate and the highly decorative were swept away to make way for buildings using modern materials, lightweight steel, concrete and glass. Combine this with the Hollywood style of art-deco design, and scores of memorable and distinctive buildings burgeoned especially lidos, cinemas, theatres and office blocks - many now vanished or unsympathetically altered.

Matlock Lido embraced the new ideas, and was distinctly art-deco, to a design by the Sheffield firm of Husband and Clark. Its location was initially controversial because it involved the loss of a small park, the Imperial Gardens, in the town centre. The council pressed ahead, however, and at a cost of £12,000 the Lido opened on schedule.

Luxury and comfort
The official opening programme emphasised the luxury and comfort - a constant water temperature of 72 degrees, a main pool - unusually large -125 ft long and 50 ft wide, with a shallow end of 2ft 6ins to a deep end of 9ft 6ins, and painted pale green to give the impression of swimming in the sea. There was capacity for 500 bathers.

Optimistically, the Lido boasted extensive sun-bathing terraces ('beaches' according to the opening programme) and spectators' seating. In the evenings the entire building was floodlit for entertainments which included keep-fit classes to music, swimming galas, fashion parades and indoor and outdoor dances, including that quintessential 1930s activity - crooning contests.

The three diving boards flanked by two fountains -'artistic cascades'' as they were described -were of significant art-deco interest. Even the changing rooms, according to a contemporary press report, had a 'gay appearance' and the decorations throughout were an attractive blend of cream and pale green - a colour scheme incidentally which remained for more than thirty years.

The indoor pool, too, was well regarded with large windows, a special air conditioning plant and artificial lighting 'to make it as bright as day'.

The official opening ceremony was clearly a five-star event. Brigadier-General G.M. Jackson of Clay Cross Hall opened the building and, in the style of the times, there were several formal speeches from local dignitaries, most of whom stressed how safe and healthy the Lido would be. This was important because in the months before the opening there had been alarming cases of contamination in some swimming pools especially riverside lidos. It was claimed that water in the Matlock pool was so pure it met drinking water standards.

The opening included a fashion parade displaying 'the full range of 1938 bathing modes', and a diving exhibition by the Scott Brothers, North of England champions. Interestingly, press coverage reported 'a highly amusing turn by Mr. Remo Tinti which culminated in his immersion in the pool'. (Older readers may recall the same Remo Tinti, by then a highly respected local councillor, presenting and leading the community singing for many years at Matlock Bath Illuminations)

High running costs
Perhaps, inevitably, the euphoria and goodwill did not last. Only a couple of months later some councillors were in we-told-you-so mode over the running costs. Although attendances were on target, the Lido was losing money. Coun. J A Mills complained that no baths could stand the wages being paid which totalled £8.7s.6d (£8.37p) a week. The Council, he claimed, was throwing money into the streets. To pay an attendant £2.10s (£2.50p) a week was a nonsense when a youth could do the job for much less. That was a minority view, and if the Lido cost a little on the rates, then that seemed all right for most people.

The 1939-45 war brought an end to the, by then, ambitious range of entertainments, but on re-opening business quickly picked up. Much of the success in the 1950s resulted from the tireless enthusiasm of the Lido's superintendent, Jack Soppitt, who took Matlock Swimming Club to heights not scaled by clubs in much larger towns, and persuaded generations of local schoolchildren that swimming really was enjoyable. By the summer of 1960, the Lido was attracting around 3,500 people on sunny Sundays and almost 50,000, not including school sessions, for the entire season.

Outdated
Perhaps inevitably, popularity declined as rival leisure facilities opened in nearby towns: fashions altered and the Lido began to look tired and feel rather dated. The somewhat spartan approach of earlier generations to open-air swimming held little attraction. The cafe, after a few years as a nightclub, was in difficulty and, far from being a money spinner, was losing money.

In the 1970s the new owners, Derbyshire Dales District Council, decided to roof over the outdoor swimming pool - a necessary move but, aesthetically, a major blow to the building's art-deco pedigree involving the demolition of the main diving board and the two water cascades. The cafe buildings which also housed the main entrance were demolished to make way for a Wilkinson's store. Since then major restoration work has been carried out to the pool, the roof, the heating and purification systems - all indicating the Lido was reaching the end of its useful life.

A new all-purpose sports and leisure centre is proposed to replace both the Lido and Sherwood Hall, the former Matlock Drill Hall, which at present is a far-from-ideal sports centre. The search for a site is well under way, with four possible locations. One is the Lido site but, if that were selected, then Matlock could be without swimming facilities for up to two years from the Lido's demolition to the opening of a new pool.

The Lido could struggle on for perhaps a further five years but the hope is that three years will be a realistic target.

Although much altered, expensive to maintain, plagued by closures for essential repairs and undeniably rather faded, the Lido remains a popular attraction and, for older generations, nostalgically remembered as an icon of times and events long gone. Will a new swimming baths retain the Lido title? That depends on local opinion.

One thing is certain: a new leisure centre could cost between £6m and £9m. The Lido's cost of £12,000, despite the high maintenance of recent years, seems remarkably good value over seven decades.


*This is a copy of an article published in "Reflections" in February 2002, pp.72-73
"Reflections" is Derbyshire's largest-circulation targeted lifestyle magazine, serving Dronfield, Chesterfield, Matlock and Bakewell areas.
The article is reproduced here with the very kind permission and written consent of the author, Michael Fay, and Bannister Publications Ltd.
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