Meet the Lido Ladies

Two ladies embracing outdoor swimming

When the sun comes out, there’s nothing quite as enticing as jumping into a clear sparkling body of fresh water – particularly one that is surrounded by the fresh open air and warm rays that fall from above. And where better to do just that during the British summertime?

The lido - defined as 'a public open-air swimming pool' and derived from the Italian translation for ‘beach’, holds a history and culture that goes well beyond taking a dip. Quintessentially British, many will associate the lido with the traditional seaside holiday – before jetting abroad became the norm. With many lidos having been refurbished and still standing strong since as far back as the 1930s, the benefits of swimming in lidos have become far more apparent and have respectfully brought a dedicated year-round following from bathers around the country.

Whilst the ‘golden age’ of lidos might have passed, there is a pair who are bringing back the movement and fighting to reclaim the popularity of the famous spots through the sharing of their own motivations…

Let us introduce you to the famous swimming duo, Jessica and Nicola - otherwise known as the Lido Ladies. The pair set up in 2020 to have fun, entertain followers and promote the benefits of swimming in the fresh outdoors. Jessica – a creative designer and entrepreneur, describes the lido as 'an oasis of calm in a busy world' helping her manage mental health challenges brought on by a family tragedy. Having spent many years behind a desk – Nicola found the physical advantages so rewarding that she finds it difficult to take time away from the pool – and can’t stop informing others about them too!

What brought the Lido Ladies to life?

Jessica: Well, I have always worn a flowery hat since being inspired by an Italian Aunt on the beaches of Italy who always used to wear one. As a child I was completely mesmerised by her – she was super glamorous, and I remember thinking ‘when I’m a lady I want to be as glamorous as that!’

So, I’d been wearing this flowery hat and we’d been swimming regularly and then lockdown happened and we were both distraught about the fact that we couldn’t swim. We started walking – we walked and walked, and we discovered Poundland! It became a focus for our walks. As we walked, we talked – we spoke about wanting to inspire people to embrace the love of the lidos as we do, and we started dressing up in our back garden and taking pictures. This is when the name Lido Ladies was born.

It started off mainly for our friends and family around us – then we started following headlines in the news. When Boris said that health was declining and we all had to get active, the Lido Ladies donned a special little outfit with elastic bands from Poundland and we said, “don’t have to think about gastric Boris” and our following just built and our costumes built with it…

It kept us – our humour and our mental health in check – Lido Ladies became a real focus for it. By the time the pools reopened after the first wave of COVID, we visited our local lido as the Lido Ladies with our blow-up flamingos and there was the BBC news team and we ended up on the 6 o’clock news!

By this time, BBC Radio London had been following us and we had appeared on the radio several times talking mainly about the hats and the costumes, but behind it was our very strong message which was trying to keep buoyancy during a very difficult time.

Nicola: So many people on Instagram when we posted would say that our pictures made them smile and we thought, if we could make somebody smile during what was such a difficult period for so many people, then our job was done. As Jessica said, it gave us the most enormous amount of pleasure and there was quite a lot of madness around Poundland which was the only store open selling anything other than food! We couldn’t go to the lido, so we brought the lido to us.

'If we could make somebody smile during what was such a difficult period for so many people, then our job was done'

It also gave us a channel for getting some positive messages out. We noticed by 2019 just how much we had benefited from the swimming, and we had set up an Instagram account pre-COVID to encourage people but mainly women of our age to put on a costume and get in the pool. COVID gave us a platform to raise the profile of what we were trying to say both in terms of the message about getting women to put on a costume and just how great exercise is for you. It’s obviously great for you at every stage of your life but it's essential I think that you keep exercising through midlife.

It also allowed us to raise awareness about the lidos themselves because those pools need funding, but they are tremendous facilities that I think where people are using them, they are probably saving money in other public facilities. Simply in terms of how much money people using swimming and exercising have saved the NHS – both in terms of the hospitals and the benefits of mental health and those facilities.

You talk about the fantasy world that the glamour of lidos brings, can you talk more about the glamour?

Jessica: Well, it started in the 1920s when it was the first time that boys and girls had shown a lot of their flesh – it was quite, you know…

Nicola: Risqué!

Jessica: Yes! They even had lido police that used to measure the distance between the hemline and knee of a lady’s costume - for a lot of boys and girls, this would have been the first time that they’d seen the shape of the opposite sex without being draped in robes! I think it became increasingly exciting and just like any kind of new fashion or fad, the way you presented yourself at the lido became incredibly important…

Coco Chanel had her first boutique in Deauville on the French seaside, and she designed one of the first lido costumes which was that classic little swim dress with stripes and yeah, the boys adored the girls in it, I think the girls felt pretty good and thus launched La Dolce Vita and that whole fashion of the iconic lido wear.

So, it was a real kind of pivotal, cultural moment wasn’t it, really?!

Jessica: Yes, and it was very sexy to go to the lido at the weekend. The girls used to wear these elaborate hats and cute little swimwear dresses and I think funnily enough, I’ve noticed the supermarkets now have more and more swim dresses which is so nice to see because it's modest, it’s flattering – you can get away with a multiple of sins under there!

Nicola: Skimpy swimwear – off the menu!

Nicola: It’s also interesting that in the 1930s when most of the lidos were built, they were built to make the nation fitter and I think that we are realising this again – I think these pools are essentially part of that.

Are most of the working lidos in the UK refurbished or have they built many new ones?

Nicola: You’ve got some smaller pools which were built in the 1960s – but a lot of the sort of long 50-metre pools – what we would describe as pools that are rather like old liners – are the ones that have survived and are being refurbished. It would just be excellent if more funding could be directed that way because all of the pools have such positive stories about what they are doing for people's lives, people’s health, and people’s wellbeing and welfare.

Jessica, you often touch on overcoming your own mental health battles throughout your life and how lidos offer an 'oasis of calm in a busy world' as you put it. Was there a point that made you start frequenting them?

Jessica: Nowadays, I get up every single morning at 6am and I’m in the pool by 6:30am – it is like my morning prayer. I struggle if I don’t do it. Strangely enough just yesterday I went to Wimbledon with my sister, and I didn’t have time to swim and, in the crowds, coming out of Wimbledon I suffered the most enormous anxiety attack. My sister was quite shocked, and I was like ‘this is why swimming is so important for me because it's crucial to my mental health’. I didn’t realise just how impactful it is when I don’t swim. There’s something about the lidos, about swimming outside under the weather – it’s just glorious, it’s a completely different experience to swimming in an indoor pool.

It’s funny because I teach creative classes especially around Christmas time – and about 6 or 7 years ago I had a group of ladies and they were all lido swimmers and they just said, ‘would you like to join our group, we swim together every Friday’ and so that’s when I started. And then when I met Nicola, we met dog walking in the park and our friendship grew and we got closer and then we discovered that we had this mutual love of swimming. Nicola used to swim competitively as a child and so I dared her early one Sunday morning to come and have a dip with me – that was probably what, 4 years ago Nicola?

Nicola: It was May 2019 – I remember it well because I nearly had a stroke!

Jessica: And she’s never looked back! From that first dip, we then became swim buddies, we talk about this a lot – the supportive network of having a swim buddy means that you are consistent with your routine. For several reasons Nicola hasn’t been able to swim with me recently and I’ve been finding it so difficult motivating myself to go there on my own. Yesterday was a classic example of what happens! We were so lucky we were on Centre Court, and I just could not manage my anxiety.

So, Nicola – you were dared into the pool by Jessica, but what made you visit that one time and then want to stick at it

Nicola: Firstly, there’s definitely the power of the swim buddy – I think Jessica was hellbent on dragging me down there on a regular basis and I think it was also a realisation of how unfit I had become from a swimming perspective. I’d swum competitively as a child, as a teenager and sort of in my early twenties. I’ve always been somebody who could just jump in a pool and swim 20 lengths and so it was just shocking how getting back into the lido, I’d just got no power, and I thought ‘oh my goodness, this is just a nightmare’! I was also at that particular time very stiff down my left side around my hip and knee and I just thought ‘I’ve really got to sort this out’.

I’d been watching my ageing parents; I lost my father at the end of 2020 and when you’re looking at people in their late 70s/80s, it makes you realise how critical mobility is. Unless you plan for that now in your 50s, you’re probably not going to be as mobile or as stable in your 70s and 80s and I just think it's so essential to stay fit and retain your muscle mass (which I think is particularly difficult for women).

It’s always puzzled me with older people, at what point in their lives do they suddenly become what I call the wobbly people, they suddenly become wobbly, they fall over – and I just think its so important to stay fit and strong and so for me that was certainly the core motivation and it completely sorted out these hip and knee issues that I had. I think a lot of perhaps some of the stiffness that I had accepted turning 50 in terms of saying ‘wow you know, I’m 50, I’m a bit stiff when I’m going down the stairs in the morning, it is what it is’. You know what – that has all gone, it’s gone. I suddenly realised one day I wasn’t stiff anymore going down the stairs and so what it says to me is that this is all possible!

'I suddenly realised one day I wasn’t stiff anymore going down the stairs and so what it says to me is that this is all possible!'

So, it’s not just prevented but actually undone issues that you were starting to have.

Jessica: The other thing I really bang on about is that with this fitness we have become so energised. People cannot believe I’m 58 years old. Because I’m strong from all the swimming, I’ve just got boundless energy. I look at some of my friends who are not so physically active, and I think it’s a bit like anything in your life – the less you do the harder it is. And when you’re fit and healthy and strong and you have a motivation which is almost a structure in your day, the energy just flows and from that you’re able to have super productive days.

'Because I’m strong from all the swimming, I’ve just got boundless energy.'

And a richer life, to put it bluntly. You have a richer life as a result, and you can show up to conversations both physically and mentally as a result.

Jessica: Exactly! I also think people around you bounce off your energy – it’s a motivator. It’s a fully positive thing to do and, we talk about you know, women in their 50s and the menopause and all of that but we are also that sandwich generation where we’ve got grown-up children that still need us and ageing parents that need us too and so the energy levels are really being drained. So, to be fit and healthy, you are actually a much better person to be able to cope with these massive life issues.

'So, to be fit and healthy, you are actually a much better person to be able to cope with these massive life issues'

It clearly has an endless impact. So, what would you say to people thinking about it – swimming, or more broadly, any kinds of physical exercise to the generations that may have dropped off but also how would you apply that to the younger people who are maybe unsure?

Jessica: Well, I mean the weather is absolutely ideal at the moment. We’ve all been starved of vitamin D and vitamin B; a lot of people were couped up during the pandemic. Find yourself a beautiful swimming costume. Go and try a few on, find the one that you feel pretty good in, get a nice towel, get flip flops, and then ask a friend and go spend a couple of hours at the lido!

Some lidos are even allowing you to book sunbathing spots now, everyone feels a lot better about themselves when they’ve got a bit of a sun-kissed tan – I’m not saying go and roast there, but get out in the sunshine, go with a friend, lie on a sunbed for an hour, and then jump in!

The important thing is enjoy it because if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t go back. It is glorious at the moment – there is chatter around the pool, it's warm, it's sunny, the water’s absolutely sparkling like diamonds.

Build up your stamina, don’t be too hard on yourself – if you can’t do 25 laps on your first visit, do a couple, have a nice time!

Nicola: I’m just going to add to that – obviously find a lido – requirement number one!

Nicola: Definitely pick a sunny day, because the pool looks so much more appealing when the sun is out and even when it's colder, I think once you get in and get moving it's fine but pick a sunny day –just having sunshine over the top of you makes the whole feeling of the thing just so much nicer.

The changing thing has also always been problematic, and I think actually we owe it to COVID in terms of making us think differently about how to arrive and get changed poolside. We found our Dry Robes absolutely amazing. You can really turn up swim ready, put it back on after swimming, whip the costume off underneath, jump in the car and go home. I think that’s really excellent because a lot of people don’t like changing rooms – I really don’t use changing rooms anymore. I use the Dry Robe and I change poolside and that works better for me!

I know you mentioned before that you have noticed through your visiting different lidos, there are communities of people that meet up there frequently?

Nicola: Yes, the social aspects of swimming are well recognised, you’ve only got to really see it on Instagram – we obviously connect with a lot of pools and swimmers but there are loads of groups of people who swim, particularly open water. You’ve got the Blue Tits – groups of women all over the country who all swim together and at the lidos you’ve got people who are doing synchronised swimming, people who are doing lido tours and reporting on that. There’s a very social aspect to it – Jessica and I have met several people simply through swimming at lidos and we’ve taken it out of the pool as well – having breakfast with them, dinner, having drinks with them, swapping stories.

Jessica: There’s different swimming activities as well: water polo, there’s quite a few people in wheelchairs that swim to keep themselves mobile. They become weightless and their physical limitations on dry land are completely different in the water, they’re able to move themselves which must be just glorious.

It’s a magnificent sport and as Nicola said, it’s an incredibly motivating sport, you know, pool parties are nothing new – young people love to get in the water and chat around it, it’s a lovely sensation.

What would you like to see more of in lidos?

Nicola: PEOPLE!

And finally - where do you find those amazing swim caps?!

Jessica: We make them! So, I buy the bases and then we stitch and glue gun all the flowers and stuff onto them!

Nicola: That is a royal ‘we’, it’s Jessica – it’s ‘I’, she’s very generous to say ‘we’, she’s absolutely the creative part of this partnership. She’s truly amazing and she has made some amazing and very beautiful costumes.

Jessica: One of our dreams would be to launch a swimwear collection with the hats which hopefully will encourage a lot more women because as I say, I get comments every single day about my flowery hats, and I always say to people ‘you cannot be grumpy when you’re wearing a hat like this’, and I think it helps with the whole experience.

Places Leisure wants everyone to embrace their inner lido, just like the Lido Ladies – come and visit us this summer, we’d love to have you!

Tooting Bec Lido

Aldershot Lido

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