On the edge of the tide


There is a place on the coast, a place that is almost forgotten.  It lies in the shadow of the promenade and you might never notice it was there.  The zig-zag of steps leading down to it is unobtrusive and ends abruptly on the rocks.  You might wonder why there is a staircase here at all.  But look before you and you will see a bowl scooped neatly out of the rocks.  Peer into the foggy water, choked with bladderwrack, and you might notice flagstones at its base.  Look closely at the walls and you will see rusted metal rings driven into the rocks.


Table Rocks is an accident of geology: a natural pool filled by the tide.  It was opened as a swimming pool in 1894, when it was 20 feet long.  In 1908 the rocks were blasted to extend it to 70 feet.  Steps were cut to lead down to it.  A rope rail was threaded through the iron rings.  A changing hut was built that was later swept away by gales.

Old postcards show the pool thronged with people, the spectators clad in formal suits, hats and long dresses.  This was a time when English seaside resorts were booming, but swimming in the sea wasn’t as easy as it is now and there were concerns about its safety.  Still, swimming here must have been a thrilling experience, with the waves booming against the rocks only a few metres away.  My mother swam in this pool, though I never did.  It was used until 1971, the year I was born.


Just along the coast from Table Rocks, another pool lies abandoned.  Tynemouth open air pool was specially built in 1925.  It lies on the edge of the beach, snuggled into the cliffs and was filled by the tide.  My grandfather helped to build this pool, often working at night between the tides.

These places are remnants of another age, before people abandoned the seaside resorts to take their holidays abroad.  Swimming became very popular in the inter-war years and in the 1930s a craze for sun-bathing developed, so in the twenties and thirties more than 200 lidos were built in the UK.  It wasn’t until the sixties that indoor leisure centres took over.

In the early nineties the pool closed, forgotten by all but the hardiest of swimmers.  The pavilion was demolished and its rubble pushed into the pool.  Covered by sand and rocks to make it safe, it was hoped that it would develop into a rock pool landscape, but it never worked.  There is a stark beauty to its dereliction.  The way the sea air has weathered the old barriers in rust, framing the sea beyond.  The abandoned stairs climbing to nothing.  The cracked steps haunted by ravens and gulls.


But when I see what has become of it, there is a sadness too.  For I remember what this place once was.  It had none of the comforts of indoor pools.  The temperature of the water was that of the frigid north sea.  Its taste was salt.  The changing rooms were no more than concrete cubes.    But swimming here, you could feel the sun and the air on your skin.  I have been here when it buzzed with people, sprawled on the steps, splashing in the pool, frolicking by the fountain.  And I have been here, cocooned at high tide, when it was almost empty.  One of my last and most vivid memories is of swimming alone, the last person in the pool as a lightning storm rolled in.

Swimming in the open air pool aged about 9

But perhaps there is a future for these places after all.  Outdoor swimming is becoming popular again.  A group of local people are seeking funding to re-open Tynemouth open air pool.  I hope that one day I will swim in it again.