I went to an open air swimming pool the other day. In fact, I went twice – first for a kids birthday party and again a few days later because it was such a lovely experience. And it was absolutely sweltering. This Victorian pool, in Buckfastleigh, a small woollen town on the Southern edge of Dartmoor, was “saved” by a hugely committed and enthusiastic local community following the District Council’s decision that it could not afford to maintain it. It was rescued, renovated and re-opened three years ago – the pool having been transferred to a charitable trust Nothing so special about this you might think. Maybe – but it’s an almighty effort by a community not just to raise the funds and do the work to get the pool open but also to keep it open. The costs of professional lifeguards, energy (the pool is heated to 27C) and maintenance alone must be significant.
But there was something special about this place. Difficult to put your finger on it – but maybe it was the original marbel benches in the changing rooms, the brilliant orange paintwork against the bright blue of the pool; the absence of officious signs telling you, it often seems, not to have fun; the “tuck shop” selling sweets and snacks; or the fact that kids (and adults) could park their bikes safely in a corner of the pool area. And you didn’t have to faff with lockers – just stick your clothes in a plastic basket and put it on the pool side. In this case simpler was much much better.
Not surprisingly this pool was busy within 30 minutes of school finishing one hot mid week afternoon. Kids letting off steam after a day in a hot classroom; parents enjoying being with their children but also allowing them to get on with it without too much control; and other mums and dads just chatting. No phones, no telly, no computer games, no social media – what’s not to like.
It seemed to me that this pool and others like it (Buckfastleigh links up with five other open air community pools in Southern Dartmoor) perform a hugely important role in promoting health and wellbeing which perhaps is not fully recognised. The exercise value of swimming is obvious but the pool as a place which facilitates social interaction, brings generations together, cuts across class divides and enables young and old to unwind and de-stress is probably undervalued. A bit more public investment in community assets like these could pay dividends in terms of stronger communities better able to meet the health and wellbeing needs of the local people.
I shall definitely be back to Buckfastleigh – hopefully for one their regular night swims. One of their special events this summer begins with going to a secret location to observe several hundred great Horseshoe Bats as they start their night forage. Then back to the pool which” will be gently lit by twinkling candle lights and fairy lights and each swimmer will wear a coloured glow stick” followed by mulled cider or hot chocolate. All for a tenner. How cool is that?