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Memories of Aquarena open air swimming pool baths in Sheerness on Sheppey


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Last year marked 40 years from the opening of the warm, indoor pools of Sheppey Leisure Complex - but taking a dip on the Island wasn't always as comfortable an experience.

Memories writer Bel Austin looks back at the days of the freezing cold Aquarena, which drew in youngsters - in the shirring elastic costumes of the day - in their droves...

The Aquarena at Sheerness in the early 1960s
The Aquarena at Sheerness in the early 1960s

They must have been a hardy lot in the 1960s - fearless.

Just look at them crowded in the old open air Aquarena, clambering on to the diving boards - straight in. Splosh. And it was freezing cold.

Even in the height of summer as they queued to go through the turnstiles a quick glance at the water temperature chalked on a board in front of them was no deterrent.

Parents of teenagers couldn’t understand the need to swim in the pool when they had a perfectly good beach, and reluctantly handed over admission money.

But they refused to budge on updating the swimwear or towels. Oh the humiliation of those shirring elastic costumes that filled with water, and even worse the home knitted ones that sagged to the knees.

As for towels - the oldest were OK for an oil slicked or tarry beach, but so shaming in the pool. Only posh swimmers bought theirs out to tie on the rails ready to flick at the unwary as they passed.

The last days of Sheerness Technical High School for Boys, taken by fifth-form pupil John Nurden in July 1970, at the Aquarena
The last days of Sheerness Technical High School for Boys, taken by fifth-form pupil John Nurden in July 1970, at the Aquarena

Somehow the pool was glamorous to youngsters brought up on a diet of Hollywood films, so they showed off to the people viewing from the Promenade windows, or stretched out by the Cascade hoping not to turn lobster red.

Oddly enough they didn’t seem to mind the unbecoming rubber caps which at least kept hair dry.

The Aquarena was so much more than public baths.

There were gala nights, water polo matches, club nights, swimming lessons and daily crocodiles of schoolchild, not always keen to divest in the cold cubicles in readiness for the plunge. And of course there were the Miss Sheerness contests.

For day trippers time shared between beach and pool was little short of paradise. They could rent deckchairs and beach huts for the day and settle on the green by the bandstand.

Swimmers enjoy the outdoor pool. Picture courtesy of Margaret Obray
Swimmers enjoy the outdoor pool. Picture courtesy of Margaret Obray

They made time for a leisurely walk along the Prom, a quick snap from a photographer with a monkey, a penny weigh in Freddie Sydenham’s green leather weighing chair, a whizz around the fairground, and back to the waiting coaches at the bus station. Fifty miles back to the Smoke.

But the floods of January 1978 brought dramatic changes leaving the Island bruised and battered.

With as much of the North Sea outside the pool as in it, there was no possibility of opening that year, or the next. However, in November 1980, a helicopter bearing Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester landed in the Pavilion grounds.

He was here to officially open the brand new super-duper heated pool, part of the Sheppey Leisure complex.

Smaller than the Aquarena and without diving boards, there are now two pools - the one for babies and beginners is like entering a warm bath. Bliss.

The swimming pool was hit by flooding in 1978
The swimming pool was hit by flooding in 1978

The main pool, so comfortably warm, makes swimming almost a languid exercise.

The enthusiasts have returned and it remains as popular as ever - despite a few unscheduled shutdowns over the years - the longest of course caused by the Covid pandemic.

In November last year there would have been 40th anniversary celebrations.

Maybe there are plans for the future - an occasion to hang out the bunting and make a splash. Who knows?

Read more: All the latest news from Sheppey

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