Beach that became a Londoners’ playground

AHOY there, pirates! This week’s choice is not about the quality of the picture itself, but all about the place Ruislip Lido, to be precise and the childhood memories associated with it.

For a more fastidious modern parent stepping over the bird poo or wrinkling their nose at the prospect of toxic algae in the water, the sandy beach at the edge of this 60-acre lake might not immediately look like the perfect place for a picnic, but for generations of Londoners the Lido provided the most memorable of playgrounds.

Those childhood days are firmly etched in the minds of locals sharing their recollections on the official Lido website.

Built as a reservoir in 1811 to feed the Grand Union canal and provide water for Paddington, it became a “lido” in the 1930s, offering boating, swimming and fishing.

Almost a century later crowds still flock to that beach on the summer to enjoy a woodland walk or picnic, visit the playground or have a ride on the miniature railway.

But while locals had used it in the 1920s for skating in the winter and swimming in the summer, it was only in 1936 that it was officially opened as the Lido, complete with art-deco style main building and a concrete swimming area flanked by piers in a horseshoe shape.

With a cafeteria and changing rooms in the main building, the lido boasted rowing and paddle boats as well as the children’s playground, beach and miniature railway. It even became known as a base for water skiing, with the world championships being televised from there.

In its heyday during the 50s and 60s, the place attracted visitors from across West London and the setting was even immortalised in the 1961 film The Young Ones, the first of a string of musicals which would shoot Cliff Richard to stardom.

Musician Vince Cox even used his Youtube channel to show “then and now” shots from the film (as well as carrying out a similar exercise for the 1968 musical fantasy film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).

Fond memories date back to the earliest days of the lido, with one local recalling: “My first memory of visiting the Lido was in the big freeze of 1947 when I, as a nine-year-old, walked across the reservoir with my father to the beach area, where shortly my father was to be responsible for importing hundreds of tons of sand.”

For youngsters escaping the war-torn city of the 1950s, this was truly a place of adventure, as another visitor explains: “You have to understand how poor the country was in the aftermath of the war. Rationing was still in force, TV was a rarity and very few people owned cars so having an amenity like the Lido close by was a wonderful treat, especially for us children.”

From donkey rides to picnic sandwiches, waiting for the 158 bus at Ruislip Manor Station or sneaking through the woods in the hope of bypassing the turnstiles, locals vividly recall the highs and lows of lido life during those halycon days.

From first fishing or birdwatching expeditions to rinsing off lake water under freezing cold water taps on the beach or falling through the ice in winter, from watching American servicemen playing their portable radios at the lakeside to Saturday night dances before the war, this was a place which played a formative role in many young people’s lives.

“It was an incredibly fantastic place to grow up in,” one woman recalls. “My brother and other friends in the road would all take to our bikes and cycle through the woods, damming up little streams, climbing trees, haring around like kids do. Going to the Lido was a regular thing, either on foot or our bikes.”

Not that all memories were happy ones, of course. The cleanliness of the water – or lack of it – had always worried some parents, and the polio scare of the mid-1950s deterred all but the most hardy from swimming for a while.

By the 1970s the lido was in serious decline. There were stories of drowning accidents and youngsters shared terrifying tales of encountering “Naked Norman” running naked through the woods. Traders deserted the lake and the beach became litter-strewn.

As one Twitter user recalled: “Was talking about open-air swimming with my 87-year-old father this week. ‘We took you to Ruislip Lido once,’ he mused. ‘It was Hell.’

But although the main building was damaged by fire and knocked down in 1994, the lido got a new lease of life in the 1990s and more investment since then. There may still be no swimming or boating, but there’s still a sandy beach, railway, play areas and pleasant views and walks through the surrounding woods.

On the lake, overwintering birds include wigeon, common pochard and gadwall ducks, with a dozen other species from geese and swans to moorhens, grebes and egrets.

Meanwhile Ruislip Woods National Nature Reserve is ‘ancient semi natural woodland’ and some parts are a remnant of the Wildwood that once completely covered England after the last ice age, about 8,000 years ago.

There’s no admission charge to Ruislip Lido but there is a charge to ride on the railway and to park your car, which can be tricky at busy times. Although access is available 24/7, certain facilities like the cafe, railway and toilets are normally only open during official opening hours, from 9am to 4-9pm depending on the time of year. The Water’s Edge pub operates normal pub hours.

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