London's best outdoor pools and lidos
Originally dammed-off clay pits, the ponds are run by the City of London Corporation. It is consulting with local residents about essential works to protect against flooding, which – though unlikely – could be catastrophic if a large quantity of rain fell over an extended period. In the meantime, the three pools remain open to ladies, men and mixed groups (including accompanied children aged eight-15, at the lifeguards’ discretion) respectively. The Men’s and Ladies’ Ponds are open all year round but to use the Mixed Pond in the winter season you must join the Hampstead Heath Winter Swimming Club. Even in the summer the water is chilly.
A 27.5m expanse of blue, the outdoor pool at the Oasis in Covent Garden is a central London revelation to the uninitiated. Once you’ve discovered the open-air heated pool, sun terrace and adjacent indoor pool you’ll be hooked, just like everyone else who’s in on the secret. The Oasis is so popular at hot summer weekends and at peak times that getting any serious swimming done is difficult – best go with the modest aim of splashing about to cool down. The outdoor parts were refurbished in 2011, with new steps to the sunbathing terrace, where there are separate areas for adults and families, and decking beside the café which serves smoothies and ice creams. Swimming is free for Camden residents aged 55 and over between 9am and noon Monday to Friday.
South London’s vast pool, with its iconic, Pantone-coloured changing huts, has been treasured by fortunate locals since it opened as a bathing lake in 1906. At just over 90m, it’s this country’s largest outdoor freshwater pool and inspires devoted swimming all through the year, although to swim in winter you must be a member of the well established South London Swimming Club, which has been based at the lido almost as long as it has existed. Facilities include a paddling pool for kids, a café, and lockers for small valuables.
Early mornings and the winter months are the preserve of the Serpentine Swimming Club, but from May to September there’s a warm welcome for everyone in this section of the Serpentine lake – although the water is not heated. It’s not chlorinated either, a boon for swimmers who prefer to avoid the stuff, as well as to the wildlife (you may find yourself sharing a dip with the local ducks and swans). The gated family area with a (chlorinated) paddling pool, sandpit and swings means parents can relax while their children play. There's a private sunbathing area and sun loungers for hire and a kiosk within the lido grounds makes it possible to order from the popular Lido Café next door.
The 50-metre pool is surrounded by art deco Grade II-listed buildings which house the Lido Café (winner of a Time Out Eating and Drinking award for 'Best park cafe' in 2011) and exercise studios, offering year-round dance and pilates classes and activities for pre-school children. An eclectic range of events are organised on the site, from film nights to furniture fairs, and the Brockwell Lido Users' Group (www.brockwelllido.com) is active in ensuring the facility meets the needs of the community. On weekdays before 10am admission is free to people over 60.
The 1990s update of the original ’30s lido is housed in a complex which includes an indoor pool, cinema and bowling alley. The (unheated) lido is now far smaller, but still has a grassy terrace. Opening is weather dependent – you won't get an al fresco swim if it's less than 20C outside. Indoors, swimmers can plough up and down the main pool or enjoy the leisure pool’s wave machine.
Formerly known as Uxbridge Lido, the Grade II-listed, 50m, open-air swimming pool reopened in 2010, restored to its 1930s glory, complete with cascades (fountains) at either end and a new, heated shallow splash pool for children. The outdoor pool is now part of a new leisure centre that includes an indoor pool of the same size. Out in the open, there’s space to chill by the pool and café for post-swimming snacks.
Built in 1938 and refurbished in 2005, the Grade II-listed Parliament Hill Lido measures a generous 60 metres by 28 metres. It has a stainless steel pool liner (the only one in an outdoor pool in the UK) which gives the water a metallic shimmer – not that you'll be able to tell when it's packed full of people on a sunny day. The lido is unheated, but wetsuits are permitted at the lifeguard’s discretion. There are two sessions a day (7-9am and 10am-6pm) with an additional adults-only evening session on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. There's a paddling pool for under-fives and a cafe.
This south-facing, 36-metre open-air pool, with grassy areas for sunbathing, is open and heated to a balmy 28C all year round. Built in 1922, it was saved from closure in the 1980s by a group of local residents, who continue to take part in fundraising activities and more practical tasks including gardening and other maintenance. The group has rebranded itself as the Poolside Swim & BBQ Club and holds swimming and social sessions outside of normal pool hours – anyone is welcome to join.
At busy weekends and during holiday periods, separate sessions for lane and fun swimming operate at Crouch End’s 50-metre lido, formerly known as Park Road Pools, which is heated and dates from 1929. There are diving areas, a children's pool, grassy slopes for sunbathing and a cafeteria. The centre also has an indoor pool, exercise studios and therapy rooms.