Where’s the best place to swim in Reading? The answer, bluntly, is Bracknell. Our new-town neighbour boasts its eponymous leisure centre, with twin 25m pools for leisure and lane swimming, and a soon-to-be renovated fun and flume complex Coral Reef. Both are normally spotlessly maintained – I can never change without being hassled by a mop-wielding attendant whenever I visit.
Meanwhile, Reading has removed its only flume at the dreary Rivermead centre, unceremoniously patching up the resulting hole in the wall with a plank of wood. And don’t expect to be able to take your family swimming there at the weekend without a half hour one-in-one-out queue, despite the sight of a very sparsely populated pool. The changing rooms have been renovated, thankfully, but as a facility the fun of the waves still can’t complete with the overall offering at Coral Reef, and that’s even before the latter’s revamp.
For lane swimming, improvements have been promised and not delivered. The dated Central Pool was planned for replacement as part of the Chatham Place redevelopment, whilst mutterings of a facility at the university have also come to nothing. The best public pool in town is probably Loddon Valley, in Wokingham-administered southeast Reading.
I’d like to see Reading’s name added to the list of UK locations offering 50m swimming pools. High Wycombe has this under construction, whilst Reading languishes behind. I believe the university should step up and lead on this; surely high quality leisure facilities will prove a lure to students, and enhance its reputation in the community. We can’t expect the council to have limitless resources in the current climate.
Despite struggling to bring plans to fruition, it seems that the municipal drawing boards have seen renewed activity lately. On November 30th, the council meets to discuss swimming facilities. They’ll be considering two plans. There are plans to open a temporary 25m pool at Rivermead, followed by closing Central Pool, then building a new “competition” pool (no info on 25m vs 50m) either at that site or elsewhere. This is being driven by the spiraling maintenance costs of Central Pool, which incredibly make a temporary replacement viable. The council have clearly dug themselves a big hole. In fact, only a little more digging and they could just fill it with water and solve the whole problem.
Separately, there’s a suggestion to close Arthur Hill after building a replacement “community” pool of 25m at Palmer Park. I still feel it would be better to have the competition facility in East Reading (preferably the Whiteknights campus), and the community facility in central/west Reading. Hopefully that can still be considered, and I accept it is very welcome that swimming facilities are at least back on the agenda.
Shovels are in the ground, however, at one swimming-themed development. The Kings Meadow Baths, a dilapidated Thames-side lido is being lovingly restored to, and frankly beyond, its former glory.
The 1902 structure, originally a women-only facility, was given listed status when on the verge of demolition for a hotel development. Campaigners not only saved the pool, but then successfully fought off further hotel plans that would have kept the pool albeit under a new roof and exclusively for guest use. They then failed, by some margin, to fund renovations themselves. But their efforts were enough to attract the attentions of Arne Ringner, who led a similar project for a lido in Bristol. He would appear to be a wealthy eccentric with a passion for lido restoration – the kind of manna from heaven for Kings Meadow that the council, and myself for that matter, didn’t think would even exist, let alone come to the rescue here in Reading.
The plans for Kings Meadow involve a slight shrinking of the pool, which remains outdoors, to the standard 25m. There’ll be room for a hot tub, plunge pool, sauna and steam room. It’ll operate as a spa on a membership model, but with one-off swim visits also permitted at certain times. Glass walls will be added around three sides leaving space under the roof for a 120-cover restaurant, bar and further spa facilities. A small extension allows for kitchens and a function room.
To be hyper critical, and this project probably doesn’t deserve it, it’s a shame the revitalised venue has a rather introverted design that doesn’t expose its best side to the river. The Thames path running behind the building is treated more as a security risk than an asset. I’d like to see outdoor tables on raised decking along the back wall overlooking the lock, providing drinks and snacks. I think that could be a gold mine in the summer months, particularly if lock island could be spruced up too. Hopefully these things can follow once the owners get their new venture up and running. Having branded it Thames Lido, they should surely look to maximise that connection.
The end result will doubtless look stunning, and be a great new destination, but we don’t yet have an opening date; the developers reposte somewhat reassuringly “when it’s ready”. With new council facilities also some way off, we might all have to look to the river more literally if we fancy a swim next summer.Follow @readingonthames