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Notes from an author: Christopher Beanland on Sydney's best lidos

Hanging out at lidos is a great way to experience Australia, and the outdoor pools that dot the Sydney coast offer a watery way to get under the city’s skin.

Published 20 Aug 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
Christopher Beanland is the author of Lido, which is published by Batsford and is out now.

Christopher Beanland is the author of Lido, which is published by Batsford and is out now. 

Photograph by Christopher Beanland

The world looks different from the water. You get new views, new perspectives. You see the birds, the contrails of planes, the blues of the sky, the clouds forming into the shapes of countries you’ve visited or the faces of people you love. Floating in the cool blue water of Sydney’s many pools, I saw different sides to this city of swagger and sweetness: one Australians find overbearing, yet Brits find positively restful.

The joy I get from a dip in the pool — wherever in the world that happens, be it in Sydney or near my home, at London Fields Lido in Hackney — encouraged me to write a book about the world’s greatest al fresco pools. A return to Sydney to swim in the most magnificent ones of all seemed obvious.

Australia’s largest city quivers on hot days, and the pool is where you cool off. At the 1930s North Sydney Olympic Pool, frogs and seahorses dance across the art deco walls like some kind of seaside Jazz Age spectacle. Sydney Harbour Bridge soars above you. At Andrew ‘Boy’ Charlton Pool — named after a homegrown recordbreaker — you’ll find swimmers huffing and puffing in pursuit of their own personal bests, while across the bay you can spy on most of Australia’s Navy, moored up at Potts Point.

Sport is the voice Australia has used to speak to the rest of the world (if you discount TV soap Neighbours) and swimming is one thing it’s excelled at. Over at Bronte, on the pavement by the changing rooms, I’m inspired to tell one small story in my book after chancing upon a plaque dedicated to Evelyn Whillier. She was a freestyle swimmer who competed for Australia in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then taught almost everyone in Bronte to swim at the jaw-dropping Bronte Rock Pool, set beneath under the cliffs.

The ocean is more fun, but the waves that roll in all the way from Chile and bash you up like a cat trapped in a washing machine are sometimes too much for even an experienced swimmer like me. The rock pools like Bronte, Clovelly and the famous Icebergs at Bondi lie somewhere in between the human-made and the godlike. Coogee has its Ocean Baths, which are nothing more than a load of rocks dumped into the sea, and the charming Wylie’s — a privately run rock pool where the pastel colours painted onto wooden decks and jaunty font of the signage remind me of the New York State summer camp in Dirty Dancing. It’s overrun with bluebottle jellyfish when I swim there and I have to avoid the little blighters on each length, like I’m playing a real-life computer game. Some other interlopers have snuck in too: spiky little sea urchins the lifeguards scoop up and put in a Tupperware box for intrigued punters to take home and cook. Next door is the only lido I can’t visit, McIver’s: a women-only coastal bath where, so I’m told, going topless is practically compulsory.

Swimming is only half the story, of course. Eating your lunch, reading, idly scrolling on your phone, sunbathing — poolside is where Aussies chill out and yabber. I watch families bicker, teenagers moan, couples flirt, tourists get their photo taken (and yes, I join in), see a Love Island contestant on a photo shoot, and lads throwing themselves into the water from the cliffs above Bronte pool. 

As Melburnian author Christos Tsiolkas points out, pools are a part of what being Australian means. His writing is inspired by the culture of changing rooms and sundecks, each informing his acute observations of everyday Australian life. You see everyone at the pool, from the fearless kids splashing around to the grandmas serenely taking their daily dip. In a classless society like Australia’s, the pool is for everyone; for a few quid, or often even for free, you can get your diurnal exercise and your mental respite, to boot. The pool is a safe space in a country where seemingly everything else, from the spiders to the seas, is trying to kill you.

Whenever I visit Sydney, the last thing I do before leaving is go for a swim in the sunshine, usually at Bronte or Coogee where I can alternate between lengths in the pool and some wilder action in the surf. And it’s never failed to put me straight to sleep — a most peaceful sleep, too — on the flight back to London and, inevitably, the cold.

Lido, by Christopher Beanland, is published by Batsford and is available from 6 August (£20).

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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