Most mornings, if I’m not too hung-over, I go for a run around Ruislip Lido — a mile there, through Ruislip Woods, about two miles round the lido and a mile back again. It generally takes me about half an hour. On my way, I see woodpeckers, egrets, sparrowhawks, and the occasional Muntjac deer. It’s hard to believe you’re in London, at the arse end of the Metropolitan line, surrounded by bland suburbia — John Betjeman’s Metroland.
Ruislip Woods is the largest slice of natural woodland in Greater London: 726 acres of oak, beech and hornbeam, and the lido is its pearl. People have gathered timber from this scruffy forest since god knows when. The medieval barn at Ruislip Manor is built from oaks that were saplings here 1,000 years ago, when these wild woods stretched right across Middlesex, Bucks and Herts.
Naturally, Ruislip Lido isn’t quite so ancient. It was built 200 years ago as a reservoir for the Grand Union Canal, but the idea was a failure. The canal was too far away and the reservoir flooded local farms. For more than a century it lay forgotten, a gigantic puddle on the edge of London, until the canal company had the bright idea of turning it into a lido. They built a splendid Art Deco pavilion, dumped some sand along the shore, and opened up the reservoir for bathing and boating. Trains and charabancs brought day trippers from the Big Smoke — a cheap day out for Londoners at an ersatz seaside resort.
Its glory days were after the war, before cheap package holidays. They built a miniature railway and held beauty contests, and happy families and courting couples flooded in. Jon Pertwee went waterskiing, Cliff Richard filmed The Young Ones, and 19-year-old Charlotte Rampling reclined on a speedboat in her swimsuit to drum up publicity for a movie called The Knack.
But in the 1970s and 1980s the punters started disappearing to Spain and the Ruislip Riviera lost its lustre. The pavilion burned down. The turnstiles rusted over. Bathing was prohibited. The pedalos were packed away. When I moved to Ruislip five years ago the lido seemed rather run down, a sad relic of a bygone era, and the surrounding woods felt seedy. I have no evidence to support this theory — it’s probably the product of a dirty mind — but some secluded areas had that distinctive ‘dogging’ vibe. The foliage was festooned with beer cans and vodka bottles. I didn’t want to look too closely at what else might be lying around.
Yet lately something’s changed. The council has built a smart new ‘Woodland Centre’ and spruced up the public areas. There’s a children’s playground, an outdoor gym, and the miniature railway is still there. The lido has been recolonised by joggers, dog walkers, and all sorts of nesting birds. When my daughter went there on a school trip, I tagged along. She spent an idyllic afternoon fishing for tiddlers. We walked home through the woods together and it was one of the best days out I’ve had in years.
You’re still not allowed to swim in it (something to do with pollution, apparently) and sailing remains verboten (the water level is too low), but I rather like the absurdist concept of a lido you can’t take a dip in. It’s a perfect fit for Ruislip, this surreal suburb where medieval England and Betjeman’s Metroland collide.