Sandford Parks Lido, Cheltenham – a midsummer swim

“I began the day with the nearest thing to a spa experience still available in the town…an early dip in the classic Sandford Lido, opened in 1935 when open-air swimming was at its height…I had the satisfying experience of being first in, diving into the smoothness and swimming a whole length alone.”

Sandford Parks Lido is a seething mass of people as we push through the turnstile and stop at the bubbling fountain to take in our delightful surroundings. The mid–afternoon sun has sent the young and old of Cheltenham into a swimming frenzy, the water alive with people splashing, jumping and powering through endless lengths.

This lido is one of the very finest in the country. An art deco gem that was given a full makeover in 2006/7, but still manages to retain a sense of the grandeur and opulence of the original 1935 design.

There’s zero chance of Tom or I getting a lane to ourselves, let alone the entire pool like Roger. Instead, we head back to the entrance, get a token for a locker and slide over hard plastic matting into the changing rooms.

Teenage boys, side partings razor sharp and bodies perfectly sculpted, preen and pout before making their way past us and on to the water’s edge, diving into the deep end in a desperate attempt to impress a group of nonplussed girls who sit splashing their feet in the pool.

One half of the lido is given over to play, with two slides providing perfect entry points for excitable school kids, demob happy after a week in the classroom. The other half is split into four lanes: one slow; one medium; two for the serious business of triathlon training.

We leave our towels, still clammy and damp from Cirencester, on the far wall and slip in. I duck into the medium lane and try and settle myself into a breast stroke that won’t strike the feet of the woman in front of me. No deal. I spot a gap and switch to front crawl, powering past and feeling breathless when I reach the far end. I turn back only to feel my own legs tapped by another swimmer. Regulating my speed in a pool is nigh on impossible. Instead, I loiter at the shallow end and wait for my moment. I let one speedy swimmer launch off and follow her, her kicking feet disappearing into faded blue as she glides away into the distance.

I switch to the slow lane and let myself have a couple of leisurely laps before a final blitz with the more serious types. Arms aching, I pull myself out and sit down to dry off in the sun. It’s a glorious feeling.

Like Cirencester, Cheltenham’s lido is locally run by trustees who saved it for the town. It has been a huge success. Once again, I can’t help but marvel at just how popular outdoor swimming is these days. The place is heaving and shows no signs of calming down as Tom and I cut through the full car park and make our way home.

It feels somehow cruel that Roger was denied seeing all this, which surely in some part he is to thank for. The places I’ve visited so far on this pilgrimage have, by and large, improved immeasurably since his traipse across the country. Whether it’s the Environment Agency going easy on the wild swimmers at Fladbury water mill, the swanky reboot of Marshall Street baths or Sandford Parks being given the makeover treatment, outdoor swimming seems in a far healthier place than it did in the late 1990s. Roger can’t swim in these places again. But we can. And so I head home, readying myself for yet more Waterlog dips.

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