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Nine decades of fun from thrilling diving shows to glamorous granny contests at Stonehaven Open Air Pool

Stonehaven Open Air Pool has been a big hit since it opened in the 1930s.
Stonehaven Open Air Pool has been a big hit since it opened in the 1930s.

Right now a willing band of volunteers is doing what people in Stonehaven have always done… lavishing care and attention on the town’s glorious art deco open air swimming pool.

After it, it was the people of the north-east town that said they wanted it built almost 90 years ago, giving a big thumbs up in a council organised poll of ratepayers. It was a resounding yes that has echoed down the decades, as the seawater pool became one of Stonehaven’s most-loved attractions, bringing people from far and wide, famed around the world.

Pete Hill is chairman of the Friends of Stonehaven Open Air Pool, a community charity, and one of the volunteers already painting, fixing and preparing for its reopening at the end of May – Covid-19 providing – having lost last season to the virus.

Crowds watch a water polo match in Stonehaven Open Air Pool in the 50s.

He said the origin of the pool lies in a 1930s phenomenon which swept the whole of Britain.

Craze for lido building

“The 1930s marked a craze for lido building within the UK. A vast number of lidos, some of which still exist, many, unfortunately, have closed, but a lot of them have their origins round about then,” said Pete.

“The interwar years was a period when people had more leisure time and there was definitely a movement towards more health-conscious pursuits, of which swimming – and particularly outdoor swimming – was one of them.”

The town clerk organised the poll and with the go-ahead in 1933, the pool was opened on June 4 1934 – with a price tag of £9,529 – and a glittering gala. It was worth the money, given its first season saw a healthy profit despite the operating costs and loan charges.

The  ballot paper from 1933 that led to the building of the pool.

Not that the opening year went entirely swimmingly for the seawater-filled pool.

Pete said: “There were reports it was probably warmer if you were to go swimming in Stonehaven Bay than in the pool itself. It was unheated. For the following season they started to take the edge off the cold – but still certainly nothing like the 29C we love and expect these days.”

War ended the sunshine and laughter

It must have worked – 1935 saw attendances soar to 43,262 bathers and 58,656 spectators.

A record 3,000 people attended on one day.

Swim or just sit back and watch… the pool has always been a place to relax.

The pool boomed during the 1930s, becoming synonymous with the growing popularity of Stonehaven as a tourist town… until the storm clouds of the Second World War brought the sunshine and laughter to an end.

“In 1939 at the outbreak of the war the pool was closed. That was the only time, prior to 2020, the pool hadn’t been open,” said Pete. However, it was opened during the rest of the war years to not only keep local morale up, but also to help the war effort.

The leaflet publicising the pool’s grand opening.

“Servicemen stationed in and around Stonehaven used the pool for their ablutions, using the showers,” said Pete.

After the war, however, the pool – 55 yards long and 20 yards wide – found itself soaring in popularity.

“This was the era of ‘you’ve never had it so good’… more leisure time, the post-war economic boom and paid holidays effectively for the first time. People were getting out and about with more money in their pocket,” said Pete.

Marion Mansfield of the USA performs a swallow dive during a display at the pool during an exhibition in 1937.

Centre of your summer activity

“Stonehaven at the time, certainly in the 50s and 60s, was a very popular resort with lots of guest houses and hotels.”

One of the biggest draws for the holidaymakers was the pool.  It wasn’t just the swimming that attracted people. There were plenty of fun and games in and out of the water.

The early days of the pool.

“Amongst other things there was the big band craze of the 50s and 60s and the pool had its own house band. It was popular for music and dancing,” said Pete.

“With the in-pool entertainment you are talking about politically incorrect things, like beauty pageants, glamorous granny contests, junior Mr Muscles… all of that stuff. There was even a Punch and Judy Show. It was the centre of your summer activity.”

A voting slip for a “smartest costume” contest.

The entertainment included galas and diving exhibitions from the pool’s “terrifyingly high” boards, now long gone, and even an international water polo match between Great Britain and West Germany in the 50s.

Also in the 50s, a group of trick drivers called the Javelins performed death-defying feats from the high boards.

Sadly, the golden days of Stonehaven as a tourism mecca were fading and the glory days of the outdoor pool along with them, as the 70s dawned along with the era of foreign package holidays.

Pool’s star was waning

Pete said: “It was guaranteed sun, guaranteed warmth, cheap food and drink, something exotic… why not go and do it. That’s exactly what happened. Stonehaven fell foul of that boom.”

Preparations for the summer opening of  the pool in 1974.

Over the 80s and 90s, the pool suffered the same problems as the rest of society… spates of vandalism and anti-social behaviour. Its star was waning.

“There was a period where it could have been a better place to go,” said Pete.

Those factors, combined with a lack of local authority investment, saw numbers drop. Things reached such a low that in the mid-90s, the pool was marked for closure. Not a thing the people of Stonehaven were going to take lying down.

“It was like putting a stick into a hornet’s nest,” said Pete.

“The people of Stonehaven – and further afield – were not amused by this and made their feelings known. There was an absolute outcry and a pressure group was set up to save the pool.”

Stonehaven Outdoor Swimming Pool pictured in  1968.

This was when the Friends first came into being as a pressure group to keep the pool open, engaging in a heated battle between locals and the council to save the pool.

Happily, it was resolved, leading to the situation of today – a happy partnership between local people and Aberdeenshire Council.

“The Friends maintain, enhance, promote and publicise the pool. And the owners and operators are Aberdeenshire Council, specifically at the moment, Live Life Aberdeenshire.”

A folk festival aqua ceilidh in the pool.

Famous visitors to the pool

Since it was saved, the pool has gone from strength-to-strength, pulling in tourists, hosting aqua ceilidhs for the town’s folk festival, offering midnight bathing, bands, entertainers and even seeing famous faces like Olympic David Carry and BBC presenter Jackie Bird visit.

Olympian David Carry visited Stonehaven Open Air Pool and went for a swim in 2010.

And at the heart of all of that was, and still is, the Friends.

Little wonder that Pete is hugely proud of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service presented to the friends in 2018.

Pete said you cannot underestimate the significance of the pool to Stonehaven.

“It was the townspeople of Stonehaven who set the ball rolling, they wanted a pool for their own civic pride. Since then, it has become known nationally and is going even further. It’s all over the UK press and we are in The Good Lido Guide.

“The pool is central to the town. It brings people in, brings money and it keeps everybody happy.”

The lord lieutenant of Kincardinshire, Carol Kinghorn, handed over the Queen’s award for voluntary service to the Friends of Stonehaven open air swimming pool. In the picture is Pete Hill.

Now the volunteers are gearing up for a new season with some new attractions on the way… such as a new chute, at a cost of £50,000 raised by the Friends.

“We’re not back at normal, it’s going to take a long time,” said Pete. “But the seeds have been sown and we are doing our bit to prepare for it. Fingers crossed…”

A busy day at the pool in 2003.

Pete and the rest of the volunteers can’t wait to welcome people back through the turnstiles of the pool. A date is yet to be finalised, but hopefully for its traditional opening weekend at the end of May.

And he can’t wait to say one thing to returning visitors…

“Enjoy yourselves. It’s been a long wait.”

Step back in time: Aberdeen Beach Bathing Station

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