There’s a swimming pool here and it’s in the middle of the sea!” The passerby I overheard exclaiming on her mobile phone as she walked past Westwood Ho! tidal pool summed up perfectly the joy of such outdoor bathing places.
I was in Devon photographing the pool as part of a project to document the tidal pools that crop up intermittently along Britain’s coastline. The project grew out of my interest in different landscapes and how they are shaped by human activity; the incongruous nature of concrete structures in the natural coastal environment.
As Kate Rew observed in her book Wild Swim, until the 1950s and the rise of the heated indoor swimming pool, children learnt to swim outdoors – “many in rivers with sectioned-off learner pools, or at the hands of people who kindly took it upon themselves to chuck children into the village pond until they learnt to float”.
For those close to the sea, many man-made tidal swimming places were constructed around Britain’s coastline. Heated by the sun, these tidal pools were often built to keep bathers safe from high and rough seas, which explains why so many of them are clustered in Scotland and around the surfing beaches of Cornwall.
They might be simple swimming holes made by shoring up natural rock pools or grand lido-like pools complete with lifeguards and tea huts. All are refreshed by good high tides. They range from Dancing Ledge in Dorset, blasted into the rock to provide bracing exercise for pupils from a nearby prep school, to Chapel Pool in Polperro, Cornwall, a natural pool used by generations of local children and which was dug out and made deeper in the 1920s.
Today, about 30 tidal pools remain in use and it is the simplest and least swanky ones that have best stood the test of time.