When Hilsea Lido closed in 2008 many felt the city had lost something special. But exciting things are happening at the site once again. RACHEL JONES looks at the future of Portsmouth’s gateway attraction.
Zipping along the glittering surface, a water sports whizz suddenly lifts himself into the air and performs a perfect spin.
The wakeboarding expert is being pulled along an electrically driven cable at Hilsea moat and drawing admiring glances from passers-by.
In the first of the spring sunshine, he’s demonstrating the skills of his sport but also breathing new life into Hilsea Lido and the surrounding area.
Wakeboarding – one of the world’s fastest growing water sports – is just one of the activities available or coming up in and around the lido.
Closed by Portsmouth City Council in 2008, the pool was handed over to a trust which is busy getting it ready for a grand re-opening. Water sports company South Coast H20 is operating in the moat alongside, using the lido’s changing facilities and renting office and shop space.
‘It’s a good opportunity for us and for the lido,’ says H20 boss Scott Sullivan, who lives in Southsea. ‘I think what they’re doing here is great, getting some public swimming back, everyone’s talking about it. And what we can do is bring something new to the area. This is going to be a great facility. I’m hoping it will attract a lot of people.’
Wakeboarding uses similar skills to snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing but competitors or participants are pulled along either by boat or powered zipwire. ‘Wakeboarding is to water-skiing what snowboarding is to skiing,’ says Scott, who will be using power from the lido to operate the zipwire.
But that’s not the only new development at the lido – a facility that was popular with Portsmouth families for decades.
The group that campaigned for years to keep it open has now taken over the running of the pool and is working hard to turn it into the pride of Portsmouth’s gateway once again.
Members of Hilsea Lido Pool for the People Trust have been clearing up the site and plan to open the pool for public swimming. They eventually want to install diving platforms – a popular facility in the lido’s 1930s heyday.
The nearby splashpool is still being operated by the council and is due to re-open this year. And the Blue Lagoon function suite on the site is available for bookings.
Scott’s H20 will be offering other water sports – including stand-up paddleboarding – in the creek, and another company, the Adventure College, is also on board to offer kayak and scuba diving training in the pool and outside the lido.
‘The wakeboarding and other sports are important to us on a number of different levels,’ says Helen Downing-Emms, vice chairwoman of the trust. ‘We’re renting space to them and all of their clients will be coming here. And then there’s an exciting new sport and a great facility to draw people from all over the country.’
The trust has been working hard to get things up and running but there is still a lot to do. Members hope the pool will be open this year but can’t say for certain. ‘You should have seen this place, people had used it as a dumping ground really. There were sofas, motorbikes, fridges,’ says Helen.
It’s a big job and volunteers from the trust are being helped by community groups and businesses. Local schools have helped with the patio area and murals around the walls and firefighters from Cosham cleared the pool of rain water. ‘It was actually a great training exercise for them, dealing with water incidents,’ says Helen.
Volunteers have been cleaning and clearing the site of weeds, ivy and brambles. One time-consuming job was dealing with the limescale almost completely covering the shower tiles. They picked every bit off with razor-blades.
‘When we started we were just a campaign group, a group of people who thought it would be a scandal to let it go. We never thought we’d be running the place, so it’s involved hard work and a lot of research,’ laughs trust chairwoman Sabrina Richards.
What keeps them going are the letters and emails of encouragement from city dwellers and former Portsmouth residents. ‘We’ve had all sorts of stories – a lady who was a champion swimmer and used to train and compete here. She taught her son to swim here too. One woman could remember a man on a raft going along and shovelling out the chlorine into the pool. Of course we won’t be doing that,’ laughs Helen.
And those who have moved away are vowing to come back and see the spruced up lido. ‘Some people are so thrilled, I’ve seen them with tears in their eyes,’ says Helen.
But it isn’t just about nostalgia, adds Sabrina. ‘We’re thinking about the young people in the city definitely. One of the big things we want to do is bring back diving boards. We have a problem with tombstoning in this city. This is something exciting young people can do in a controlled environment.’
Outside there’s much excitement surrounding the wakeboarding demonstrations. The University of Portsmouth’s wakeboarding club are using the facility and they’re very impressed.
With it’s zipwire and ramps for jumping and aerial tricks, the business should draw people from far and wide. Many wakeboarding facilities are circular for multi-users and on lakes so not good for one-on-one training.
‘One advantage is that spectators can get really close to this,’ says Scott.
He has big dreams, hoping to draw plenty of people to his activities which he says are fantastic for core strength, flexibility and fitness. But he also adds: ‘I hope one day we might be producing world champions.’
And in the lido Sabrina feels the same. ‘There used to be diving and swimming contests here and the ASA [Amateur Swimming Association) say it could be a competition venue again. Maybe one day we’ll have a champion diver.’