Sea Lanes Is A Beautiful Set Of Contradictions

Jem Collins on the shiny new Sea Lanes lido: it’s a place with contradictions at its heart, and that’s what helps it find its place.

Sea Lanes Is A Beautiful Set Of Contradictions

When I was growing up, the outdoor pool was a big day out—a rare treat only to be cracked open on especially warm days. Still sweating from the car journey, we’d race to get changed and out into the pool, vying to secure a white plastic sun lounger with our towels and bags. An endless stream of people would launch off the deep end into three metres of chlorinated joy. You’d won the game if you touched the tiled floor below.

For most of us, it’s an image that sums up lidos. Whether you’re thinking of a grand art deco structure like Saltdean, built in their 1930s heyday, or a small community pool run by volunteers, the mental image is the same. A sparkling pool surrounded by the shrieks of families and sunseekers, all looking to while away a summer afternoon.

Sea Lanes Brighton is nothing like this—but it’s still an undeniable triumph.

Source: Jem Collins

The pool, on the site of the old Peter Pan Playground in Kemptown, has been a long time in the making. Planning permission was first submitted in 2018, with a £2.5 million loan announced to fund the project in 2022. It finally opened its waters to the public this June. But, it’s not just Brighton that’s been waiting for this pool.

According to the authors of The Lido Guide, Sea Lanes Brighton is the first new public lido built in the UK since the 1990s. It’s the first 50-metre outdoor pool built for decades longer than that. And it is unmistakably a lido—approach on the higher road from the west and you’ll see it gleaming amongst the pebbles. But that’s where the similarities to the traditional vision end.

Source: Jem Collins

The first thing I noticed about Sea Lanes is just how new and shiny the venue is. The thing that stayed with me was the contradictions that run through its heart. This is a lido that’s on the beach—it’s surrounded by the pebbles of the Brighton shorelines, separated only by a clear glass wall. As you’re swimming, you can see the waves alongside you. But this isn’t a place where you’d necessarily do beach things.

Unlike the beach, this isn’t somewhere to splash about and eat ice creams. Aside from the fact there isn’t an ice cream hut in sight, Brighton Sea Lanes is unashamedly about training. The six lane pool has ambitiously dubbed itself the National Open Water Swimming Centre, and every single session is for swimming laps, of all speeds and strokes.

You’ll find no spacious sun terraces and pool loungers here. Despite being the largest outdoor pool built in decades, the actual footprint of the site is small and utilitarian. There’s a sense of deliberate selection about what is (and isn’t) here—everything on the site has been put there for a reason. And that reason is to swim.

It sits in quiet confidence with the contrast of its surroundings—the glimmer of the blue chlorinated water against the vast expanses of salt water behind. The lazer sharp focus on the act of swimming, right next to the chattering of Bision Beach Bar, which overlooks the water. When I swam, it was to the sounds of a drum and bass set playing at the nearby Concorde 2.

It might sound like an odd list of contradictions, but these opposing ideas are exactly how Sea Lanes finds its place in the world.

Source: Jem Collins

Sitting just a stone’s throw away from the historic lidos of Saltdean and Pells Pool, Brighton is blessed to already offer an array of more traditional experiences. A carbon-copy is not what’s needed here — and could very well have felt inauthentic. By allowing themselves to think freely about the gaps in outdoor swimming provision, the team at Sea Lanes Brighton have also kickstarted the conversation about what lidos can be in 2023.

Outdoor swimming has been rising steadily across the UK for the past five years and a safe, heated pool just for swimming lengths maps perfectly to the demographic. New lidos with entirely new concepts offer us a chance to rethink what else our swimming spaces could do for people. It won’t be the right pool for everyone, but a diversification of outdoor spaces is a good thing that helps us get even more people in the water.

Sea Lanes will never be the same as swimming in the sea, but it absolutely offers a little of the same magic. Every time you visit, you’ll find something is slightly different: the breeze on your face, the changing daylight around you, the mood of the sea. It looked stunning against the bright blue skies at opening weekend, but I think its best days are yet to come, defiant against an angry winter sky.

Don’t be put off by the endless lane swimming or a fancy name—this is a pool for anyone who simply enjoys swimming up and down. There are a wide variety of lanes for swimmers of all speeds and the pool is a level, standing depth all the way along. While the water feels fresh upon entry, it’s heated to 15–19ºC all year round—an achievable temperature even for those used to the humid climates of indoor pools. During my visit, I saw just as many breaststroke swimmers as I did neoprene-clad triathletes.

Source: Jem Collins

At £11 a swim, it is undeniably a premium experience, although memberships do offer better value for those looking to swim once a week or more. Even with the price tag, if you’re looking to dip your toe into the world of outdoor swimming this is the place to start. The combination of sea and sky offer an unbeatable magic show that make it hard for this to be just a one-off experience. You won’t be able to jump in at the deep end like I did as a child—there isn’t one—but you will win the game as your feet touch the tiled floor below.

Jem Collins is a freelance journalist and the founder of All The Lidos, which aims to help more people find adventures in outdoor pools of all shapes and sizes. You can follow them on Instagram here.