Talking to a Plymouth College of Art student recently, I discovered that Bude Sea Pool is unique in the UK for being the only outdoor pool which is actually built into the landscape. Certainly, it is one of the last remaining tidal lidos in the country. She felt this, therefore, creates a unique sense of space because, while the sea may be raging beyond, the sea pool itself tends to be calm (unless the tide is actually high enough to be smashing into it, of course). She was interested in the diverse people who still use the sea pool and why they use it, a fascinating project.
Prior to the sea pool, locals or visitors (men) wanting an outdoor swim had to content themselves with Tommy’s Pit. This rock pool was known in 1859 as the ‘New Bath Pool’ situated at the end of the Breakwater. It was constructed by Sir Thomas Acland as a men’s only bathing pool. The man in attendance would be paid 2d. per visit and visitors were fined if they swam naked. Interestingly, in a book entitled “A Social History of Swimming” by Christopher Love, it seems that open air pools like Tommy’s Pit were also used for bathing purposes, as well as swimming.
It was not until 1930, that the Thynne family of Bude put up half the money to create Bude Sea Pool. By this time, women were less constrained in the swimming stakes. Even so, Love writes that well into the 20th century, the acceptance of women in activities outside the home/domestic sphere was heavily contested. Initially, swimming was very much a male preserve. One of the issues was that of ‘respectable dress’. Prior to the 1830s, and probably for some time after, nude bathing at the seaside was considered common for men. As we can see from Tommy’s Pit, it was deemed necessary to have a fine in place for men doing this from 1859 onwards. Mixed bathing was condemned under Victorian mores, which is why Bude had separate beaches for men and women. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, mixed bathing was, as Love states, effectively outlawed.
Love’s explanation for this is interesting. He states that the public disapproval of mixed bathing emanating very much from the upper and middle classes. It was due to the highly regulated effect of urban behaviour which would overspill to seaside areas when people had holidays. By the 1870s, there were strict social codes in place: segregated swimming areas to avoid titillation, and the provision of swimming costumes for both men and women. From the 1830s, women had been encouraged to use costumes in the water, but for men, it was much later. Love writes:
Regulation costumes were… black, red, or dark blue, drawers were to be worn underneath, and shoulder straps were to be two inches wide or more. The front of the costume could not reach more than five inches below the base of the neck, and legs must extent at least four and a half inches below the crotch.
He writes that the necessity for women to cover up started very early but that, for men, in private competition’s (swimming clubs, etc) men often swam in the nude with no concern for modesty or respectability. So, we see a gender difference that emerged very quickly as people started to publicly swim, with women the most constrained. (Nothing new there.)
In Bude, my book, Bude: The Postcard Collection, shows some images of the segregated beaches. Crooklets was for the ladies, complete with changing tents. It was also then known as Maer Bathing Beach. Summerleaze was for men. Never the twain would meet as they were separated by Middle Beach. No wonder Bude was popular because its natural beach layout supported the separation of the sexes. This legal segregation ended in 1901. By the 1920s, people were flouting convention and the growth of mixed family swimming. Understandably, the Bude Sea Pool construction was a vital part in the development of family seaside holidays in the town, providing safer bathing. The Bude Sea Pool website gives us a flavour of the history, which it is pointless rewriting here, but the safety aspect is mentioned:
Bude Sea Pool was built in the 1930s to provide a safe environment for swimming for the people of Bude. This semi-natural pool, measuring 91m long by 45m wide, was created under the curve of the cliffs in a conservation area. It provides the unique experience of being in or on the sea, close to the ferocity of the Atlantic Ocean, but sheltered from its extreme effects.