Dip In At Pells Pool
by Robert Veitch
Pells Pool is a gem in the Lewes hinterland, the oldest freshwater pool in the UK. We sent Robert Veitch along to take a look.
The clear water was gushing into the smooth calico coloured empty cavity that breaches the Earth’s crust as I walked through the entrance to Pells Pool in Lewes.
“We’ve just started to fill it for the season,” bellowed Phil Ransley the Pool Manager. “It’s been going for an hour, but takes about seventy-two, to fill up completely.” Shaking Phil’s hand the water barely covered the deep end, looking like a distant oasis in the desert. Pells Pool requires 350,000 gallons (1,400,000 litres) of spring water to fill it, although the annual licence is for 1,000,000 gallons. Phil told me thousands of gallons are lost to evaporation and the everyday actions of wet swimmers leaving the water after a swim. The Pool is spring fed, from aquifers 10-12m beneath the surface.
I was in this part of Lewes to meet Rob Read, who took me on a tour of this very impressive facility. Rob is part of the Pells Pool Community Association that’s responsible for the pool, in coalition with the much appreciated assistance of Lewes Town Council. He volunteered in 2011, having swum at Pells Pool since the turn of the century. Rob was quick to point out this is the oldest outdoor freshwater swimming pool in the UK.
Pells Pool is located in Town Brooks, on land that was gifted to Lewes in 1603 by John Rowe, a local lawyer. 257 years later, Victorian vigour and industry oversaw the construction of the Pool from 1860 onwards. It opened to fanfare on May 29th 1861. It was, and remains, a magnificent and vast 50 x 25 yards (45.72m x 22.86m). Funding was by public subscription at a total cost of £422 5s 6d. Donors contributing £5 (£450 at current prices) received free lifetime admission.
In 1861 it was the sun alone that heated the water, and solar power remains the only form of heating 156 years later. During the season the temperature hovers around 21˚C throughout the warmest months.
Rob told me that back in 1861 there were two pools, the subscription pool that survives to this day, and the free pool that was filled in during 1950 to become the picnic lawn. During cold Victorian winters, the water level was lowered and the pool became an ice skating rink. For the 1934 season prices were finally increased after 73 years at the same rate.
Rob recounted some of the improvement over the years. A filtration system was introduced during the 1950s, after which the water lost its green hue. In 1961 the centenary kiosk was opened. During the 1970s the diving boards were removed, “as part of changing safety standards across UK pools,” stated Rob. He then drew my attention to the flint wall that separates the Pool from Pells Brook. Pointing to the changing design of the brick and flint filling a gap part way along, Rob remarked, “that’s where the ice cream van used to pull up.”
The water pumps were replaced in 1992. For the 2014 season, the changing rooms were renewed. The blue lane markings on the bottom of the Pool were added last year. Rob told me, “The markers are appreciated by serious swimmers, wild swimmers, channel swimmers and those training for triathlon.”
Rob took me to see the large powerful pumps, which were installed in 2015 to replace the pumps of 1992. They can replenish all the water in 4-6 hours. In the adjacent room were six sand filters, which keep the water clean and crystal clear.
But it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Plans to close the Pool after WWII were met with public protest. In 1991, with an indoor pool opening nearby at the new leisure centre it was thought Pells Pool would become redundant; there were plans to close it and develop the land. Again the public protested. The documentation surrounding John Rowe’s gift of 1603 was scrutinised and small print on the parchment prevented the land being sold for development. Pells Pool survived again. In 1999 there was an attempt to turn it into a skateboard park. A public petition signed by 4,000 people saw off the developers once more.
In 2001 The Pells Pool Community Association was created to run the pool in the long term as a charity. Its’ future is now assured.
Pells Pool were involved in the first national lido conference in 2016 which brought together many of the remaining lidos in the UK. The public can support the Pool just by using it. “The chill of the water is a surprise for the first timer, but swimmers are usually invigorated by the experience once they are used to it,” according to Rob. Enthusiasts can volunteer to help, just like Rob has done.
Rob went on to tell me that early morning swimming from 7-9am has been introduced in recent times. Last year an evening event saw over 100 people turn up for a midnight swim. Each year there is a fundraising day for local good causes that ends with a firework display.
The late afternoon sun eased over the horizon, clear blue skies were starting to fade. Pells Pool and its’ tree lined parkland setting appeared Elysian, a celestial body of water, barely ¼ of a mile from the town centre. The 2017 season runs from mid-May to mid-September. Bidding Rob farewell, the water continued to pour in, barely covering the bottom. I vowed to return for a swim, once it was full.
For further information on opening times, please visit: www.pellspool.org.uk