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Cathedrals of tennis and rugby, and a much-loved lido

This is a transcript of episode 14 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett, Professor Martin Polley, Deborah Lamb and Derek Chester as we continue our journey through the history of sport and leisure in England.

A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by Ecclesiastical

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Emma Barnett:
Welcome to Irreplaceable, a history of England in 100 places. I’m Emma Barnett and in this series we’re exploring the amazing places which have helped make England the country it is today.

If you are enjoying this series please leave a review on iTunes and subscribe so you don’t miss an episode.

So, far in the series, we’ve heard about some of the countries most important homes and gardens. We’ve travelled to the sites which tell of great journeys and we’ve learned which places witnessed incredible moments of scientific discovery. Don’t forget to visit historicengland.org.uk/100places, that’s with the number, to learn more about the campaign and how you can get involved.

Today, we’re delving further in to our sports and leisure category judged by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson who has selected her top ten sport and leisure locations from your nominations.

Today I am joined by Professor Martin Polley, Director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University and author of the British Olympics, Britain’s Olympic Heritage 1612-2012. And Deborah Lamb from Historic England to unveil and explore a few more.

Welcome Deborah, welcome Martin.

Martin Polley:
Thank you.

Emma Barnett:
Let’s get cracking. Now if I site, whites, centre court and strawberries, you’ve probably already worked this one out haven’t you? The fourth location in Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson’s top ten is the All England Lawn Tennis Club which you all know as home of the famous and fabulous Wimbledon Tennis Championships. What summer would be complete without the annual drama of Wimbledon?

It is an interesting choice, because the location we celebrate today, the Church Road home to the Centre Court wasn’t the original site of the club. As with many a great sporting location this one has changed and developed through the decades as fashion, society and urban landscapes evolved around it. The All England Club has always been based in the London suburb of Wimbledon, but let’s talk a bit more about it’s interesting beginnings. Martin, talk to me about the idea of this club, but it wasn’t actually founded for the reasons we think?

Martin Polley:
Not at all. It was started off as a croquet club in 1868. Croquet was a huge phase, a huge fad amongst middle classes with big enough gardens to play it on. And a number of players came together in South London and formed a croquet club in 1868. They then moved to Worple Road in Wimbledon. Wimbledon of course a suburb that was opening up through the coming of the railways as well. And it was only a few years later on that they actually diversified in to tennis which is what they’ve become famous for.

Emma Barnett:
Well, I don’t … I think Deborah most people would just not know that. They will not know that it was croquet and tennis, never mind just croquet at first.

Deborah Lamb:
Yes, exactly. I think tennis has become so much, you know … so much more popular. I think it started really, I think, the tennis there in 1877 because the club needed to raise some cash to repair their grass cutting tools. So, devised a tournament for between 22 gentleman, charging them each a guinea to play. And that was the beginning of the Lawn Tennis Championships.

Emma Barnett:
The world’s first official tennis tournament and grand slam. I mean, the idea that you know, that all of this was just starting. I mean, I feel like tennis must have been in England certainly for hundreds and hundreds of years but it hasn’t …

Martin Polley:
No.

Emma Barnett:
… in the way we think of it.

Martin Polley:
Not in the way we think. But tennis itself, obviously, is an incredibly old sport. There’s medieval evidence for it. It’s mentioned in Shakespeare, Henry V, where he’s given a gift of tennis balls. Henry VIII was certainly a huge proponent of tennis and his real tennis court at Hampton Court is still standing.

Emma Barnett:
But as a grand slam?

Martin Polley:
Well exactly and as a middle class suburban sport, it’s very much the late 19th century that we see that development where a number of different people coming together. Ideas from Harry Gem and his colleague JBA Perera in Birmingham. Ideas from Walter Wingfield. Gradually you get these sort of adaptations of the sport of knocking a ball over a net gradually, coming down to fit in to a lawn and that’s where we get the modern lawn tennis.

Emma Barnett:
And rain has always delayed things, which is good to see that history hasn’t changed that. Although, recently obviously, they’ve got a roof so it’s slightly different. But it’s been 140 years since that first match, how has tennis changed at Wimbledon specifically, Deborah?

Deborah Lamb:
In 1922, the club and the championships actually moved to their new site in Church Road. Got much bigger. The current site with 40 courts, 18 championship grass courts. Loads of room for all the matches that we see now. And one of the innovations, I think was that actually in 1967, the championships at Wimbledon were actually the first colour television to be broadcast on BBC2. I can probably just about remember that myself actually.

Emma Barnett:
Which is extraordinary as well, that this was what people were flocking to look at in colour and then being in colour it would have made a huge difference Martin?

Martin Polley:
Absolutely. I mean, the BBC has a very long relationship with Wimbledon. They were doing radio broadcasts there from the twenties. Early experimental TV broadcasts as well. But absolutely making it the first colour broadcaster before any Olympics came on our TVs in colour, ready did make it stand out. And the whites against the greens is so perfect.

Emma Barnett:
Now, the iconic tennis stories, and there’s so many that’s gone on at Wimbledon. John McEnroe, the outburst? Both of you remember that?

Deborah Lamb:
‘You cannot be serious!’.

Emma Barnett:
[laughter] Yes. I mean, the idea of that happening, I don’t know, it’s so … it’s even so much better isn’t it that it happens at Wimbledon at a club like that. Do you know Martin?

Martin Polley:
Perfect. Absolutely, yeah, and it’s the way in which he was presented in the British media as ‘super brat’, coming on here to challenge and subvert our gentlemanly traditions, I think just made, certainly for me as a 15 year old, [laughs] made it all much, so much more interesting to watch.

Emma Barnett:
And the women’s game, I mean it’s interesting. In 1884, Wimbledon held the first Ladies Championships. But the women didn’t get equal pay until 2007 which was due to the different lengths and number of games required.

Deborah Lamb:
Yes, well it was an awfully long time coming wasn’t it?

Emma Barnett:
Yes. I mean, 1884 to 2007 is a rather long stint Martin, isn’t it?
MP: I think it’s important to remember that up until 1968 it was only amateurs at Wimbledon. So, the …

Emma Barnett:
Yes.

Martin Polley:
… pay issue wasn’t quite as important. But since it went open in 1968, absolutely. And obviously, the men continue to argue well, you only play three sets. The women said, that’s all you’re allowed to play. We’re still doing the best we can in the circumstances, so I think it was long overdue for the equal prize money.

Emma Barnett:
Well, I tell you what else is long overdue, that we need a British woman to win Wimbledon. The last time that happened was 1977 with Virginia Wade. But we all kind of just live in hope. Before we move on, I wanted to share a few fun facts about Wimbledon. 6,000 staff are employed for each championship. 2,200 of them are in catering. They serve 330,000 cups of tea and coffee, 166,000 servings of English strawberries, 29,000 bottles of champagne to the 39,000 spectators at each championship. There’s a lot of liquid being imbibed. But let’s move on.

Staying in South West London our fifth location gets a special mention from our judge, Tanni Grey-Thompson for it’s incredible atmosphere. It’s the fourth largest stadium in Europe and the second largest in the UK after Wembley.

Have you guessed it? It’s Twickenham.

Yes, Twickenham Stadium. Rugby had been rising in popularity in England since the early 20th century. Test matches between teams in the British Isles, New Zealand and South Africa were rapidly selling out and it was decided that it was about time that rugby had a proper base in England.  And that’s when the Rugby Football Union purchased these four hectares of Market Garden on Whitton Road, a former cabbage patch. And in 1987 put up stands the following year.

Martin, tell me then, rugby began to steal the nation’s heart at the turn of the 20th century, is that right?

Martin Polley:
It is, but I think it’s always had slight geographical limitations compared to others, some other sports. Obviously, the game itself developed out of a version of football that was played at Rugby School. And the fantastic creation myth is that in 1823 a boy called William Webb Ellis, picked up a ball and ran with it against the rules of football at the time.

I mean the actual written accounts of that don’t come until an awful lot later at a time when the Rugby Football Union was really working hard to stress it’s lineage in the face of the professional clubs from the north. But, yeah, it’s got a long history. The Rugby Football Union was formed in 1871 as a splinter group from the Football Association for the clubs that wanted to play it the Rugby way. And then in 1895 22 clubs in the North of England who wanted to be able to pay their players for broken time, split off in to Rugby League.

So, by the turn of the century it was fractured and it had different geographical heartlands but it was becoming very popular.

Emma Barnett:
And why was Twickenham so important Deborah?

Deborah Lamb:
Well in 1906, a sportsman and property entrepreneur called William “Billy” Williams was given the task of finding a home ground for the England game. And he chose this site, this patch of land and paid £5,500 for it. He’s made quite a good return on that.

Emma Barnett:
Yes.

Deborah Lamb:
And the first international match was played at Twickenham in 1910 when England beat Wales for the first time in years and started a winning streak from their new home. And actually, that’s one of the things that I really like about Twickenham is that it really kind of sums up that sense of kind of national pride and national competitiveness, particularly amongst the home countries. I think, more in rugby than aby other sport actually.

Emma Barnett:
So, by the start of the 20th century, rugby was played by labouring classes and wealthy school types alike. The first international tours with Australia and New Zealand had taken place. And the first international Rugby Union tournament was the Home Nations Championship. England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales competed against one another as part of this and were joined by France to form the Five Nations in 1910.

So, by this time, the game was already becoming a matter of national pride. I do like the way you made that sound quite friendly Deborah. Sometimes, it’s not very friendly. I have had to leave a pub on the border of England and Wales before, cos, dare I say, we were supporting England and we were the only people. [laughter] So, you made it sound very jolly and friendly. Not always?

Deborah Lamb:
No.

Emma Barnett:
Not always. Twickenham has been described as the ‘cathedral of rugby’.

Deborah Lamb:
Yeah, I think the thing with enormous stadiums like Twickenham that are home to big sporting events, is you get that experience of being in a magnificent place and you’re in the moment when really significant events happen. When that particular moment that can change a game, and you’re with tens of thousands of people. And I think that’s the thing that sport gives you in magnificent locations like this.

Emma Barnett:
Martin?

Martin Polley:
I think as well as what you’ve just said about how it is on the inside, I think if you look at it from the outside as well, because it just looms above the suburb that it’s in, in the way that you get the impression that St Paul’s must have looked like when it was first built before the City of London rose around it.

Emma Barnett:
Yes.

Martin Polley:
So, the way it towers over the suburb really gives that sense of status too.

Emma Barnett:
Do you remember the Twickenham streaker, or have I mis-remembered this?

Martin Polley:
Oh, god yes.

Emma Barnett:
[laughter] because I actually had the joy of meeting her once. And if you were in the stadium for that, you really do remember that moment as well. [laughter].

Deborah Lamb:
Yes, alas, I wasn’t in the stadium for that but I do remember seeing it on the television I think, yeah.

Emma Barnett:
Yeah, she just got a bit drunk she said and she just felt the need to whip her top off. There we go. That’s how she’s been remembered ever since. But I digress, because of course, what was you know, it’s interesting to think about our sporting locations during the wars and what they did. These huge locations and how they got re-appropriated. Martin, the World Wars actually meant, we didn’t have leisure activities?

Martin Polley:
Absolutely. Well a lot happened but on much smaller scales.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, in the same way?

Martin Polley:
And in the same way, absolutely. And then what we saw is that many sporting venues which are, you know, pretty good agricultural land if you like to think of it in that way, were turned over to things like agriculture, farming. So, Twickenham was used for cattle, horse and sheep grazing during the First World War.

Emma Barnett:
The grass!

Martin Polley:
Absolutely. Well, Wimbledon was allotments as well [laughter].

Emma Barnett:
I know but still, anyway go on.

Martin Polley:
Got to make … you got to do your bit. During the Second World War, the stadium at Twickenham was used as a civil defence depot and was earmarked as a site for decontamination in the event of chemical attacks of London. But yeah these are important big buildings with lots of space. It made perfect sense for them to be able to double up for civil defence purposes.

Emma Barnett:
Which is a really interesting thing to remember and to even be told in the first place, cos I don’t think you necessarily think about that.

Let’s talk about a first. The first BBC sports commentary took place from here 1927. Deborah?

Deborah Lamb:
Yes, and I believe that if you actually look in the wooden commentary box on the South Terrace, you’ll find the words ‘don’t swear’ written on the wall. I’m sure all BBC sports commentators have got that kind of embedded in their brains.

Emma Barnett:
Never mind the sports commentators, people like myself who do the news and the politics, today Twickenham, it’s still host to test matches for England’s national rugby team and it’s also a major music venue since hosting The Rolling Stones in 2003.

What do you think it is that makes it such a special venue then, Deborah? If we could just sum it up to get it in to our top ten?

Deborah Lamb:
I think it’s that sense, for me it’s that sense of what it means in terms of that kind of national rivalry, I think particularly with the home nations and that’s where it’s played out.

Emma Barnett:
Martin, a final word on this?

Martin Polley:
Yeah, I think also, because it is the home for a single sport. So, Wembley hosts a hold load of other things beside football. For Twickenham it’s a single sport. It doesn’t have a club as a permanent resident, so it is just that focus for the big events.

Emma Barnett:
That’s a very good point.

Well time to reveal our sixth sport and leisure location now. We’re off to visit Saltdean Lido, our country’s only grade II* listed coastal lido which is a bit of a gem.

Derek Chester:
My name is Derek Chester. I’m one of the volunteers behind the Saltdean Lido restoration project. I moved to Saltdean when I was five and it was a really fun and exciting place to live. I got involved when the previous leaseholder announced plans to fill in the pool with concrete and build flats and I wanted to do my bit to help save it for future generations.

Behind us, you can hear the coast road and the sea is literally a stone’s throw. The great thing about Saltdean is, it was actually constructed in a very short period of time between the two wars. It was the only holiday resort town to be built between the First and the Second World War.

The property developer behind Saltdean decided that in order to make this a landmark holiday destination, he would come up with some very international buildings. That’s he worked with Richard Jones to come up with the design for Saltdean Lido and the Ocean Hotel, which sits on the hill behind it. And the great thing about these pieces of architecture is, they were about embracing the future.

They were very modern and it was all about looking towards America, what was happening there, with their exciting architecture and leisure spaces and also, the social development in the open air movement about being fit and healthy. And all sorts of people rub shoulders in a lido space and for the price of sixpence you could come in, you could sit by the pool, you could people watch, you could go for a swim or you could enter this amazing Hollywood inspired building.

So, you could go in via the ice cream kiosk and originally there was a spiral staircase which took you up to the Rotunda tea room. But most importantly, that space was designed to look like the interior of an ocean liner. We’ve spoken to a couple of people that remember visiting as children in 1939 and they described it as looking so shiny and new, they’d never seen so much glass in a building before. And they said it was like stepping on to the set of a Hollywood movie.

In 1939 [sirens], we had the outbreak of the Second World War but Saltdean Lido didn’t close it’s doors. It continued and servicemen would come here on downtime and we have stories from people who actually met their partners here. But, at late summer 1940, the Battle of Britain commenced in the skies about Sussex and Kent. And we’ve had reports from people that can remember swimming in the pool when air raids used to go off. And just behind me is a subterranean tunnel which leads just down to the shingle beach. It takes a couple of minutes to get down in to the sea there.

So, when the air raid sirens used to sound, the lifeguards used to evacuate everyone down in to the safety of the tunnel. But on one particular occasion, eye witnesses remember seeing a Messerschmitt flying in. She even described seeing the swastika on the side, and then it opened fire on people in the grounds of the Lido. Everyone was okay. And not long after that time, it was decided tit was too dangerous to keep the Lido open.

We have just had our first season. We had I think between 35 and 40 thousand visitors this summer which has been amazing. So, we’ve reinstated the crescent shaped pool. This year it’s about fundraising the money needed to restore the art deco building which is in a terrible state. It’s reinforced concrete which was still pioneering in the thirties. A lot of the sea salts have penetrated the steel work, but we are going to take it back to it’s 1938 core so that it can retain it’s function as a community centre, but also a visitor centre.

Emma Barnett:
Saltdean Lido is now closed for the winter while work goes on behind the scenes to get things ready for the summer season. This special place is Grade II* listed and we can see from the way it’s been lovingly restored it is treasured. But Martin it opened before the outbreak of World War II, so what was happening to people’s leisure habits in the UK generally at this time?

Martin Polley:
There was more paid holiday. Holiday with pay was the standards across all industries. The railways obviously were great as well, so the seaside was an absolute national habit. But the Lido movement wasn’t just restricted to the seaside. Although the seaside did it very well, they were growing up in town and cities and suburbs all over the place.

So, swimming at the sea, both in the sea and then in these beautiful, beautiful lidos became a key part of the holiday habit.

Emma Barnett:
And the design, is gorgeous of these lidos, isn’t it?

Martin Polley:
Absolutely. It’s a fantastic. Most of them have … there’s very strong art deco flavours in many of them. There’s modernist flavours in them. But all built around the purpose of swimming. So, they’re absolutely iconic for their time, yeah.

Emma Barnett:
And Deborah, after the Battle of Britain in 1941, the Lido was shut, used for a completely different purpose?

Deborah Lamb:
Yes, it was used as a water tank by the local fire brigade. And it’s changing rooms were used by locals for church services and a Sunday school during the Second World War. I’m not sure about having a church service in the changing rooms.

Emma Barnett:
[laughter] Well it’s almost more interesting knowing what was going on with these places if in times when they weren’t being used for the reason we think. And Billy Butlin, did he try his hand?

Martin Polley:
Absolutely, yes. Yeah, the famous Butlins holiday empire, again from the inter war period, a classic of it’s time, attempted to buy the site. But the town council rejected it because they wanted to keep it very much as a community asset.  And then in the mid-1960s, they added a community centre and a library to it. So, it’s again, it’s this beautiful mix of being something to bring in the tourists but also something for the community itself.

Emma Barnett:
And the design. We’ve talked about sort of the visuals and the beautiful side of it and the art deco influence, but there was careful note of needs as well, wasn’t there, built in?

Deborah Lamb:
Yes, there was special areas for sunbathing and lounging and there was also a big kind of community and social aspect to it with tea rooms and a café …

Emma Barnett:
You definitely need a café with a swimming pool.

Deborah Lamb:
Absolutely. And even a ballroom where dances took place.

Emma Barnett:
Of course. Of course, you have a ballroom with your lido.

Deborah Lamb:
Yeah, while you’re in your swimsuit.

Emma Barnett:
Well and then, I think what’s interesting as well is, there have been again, since, you know, concerns about it continuing and these particular pools, are they seeming … you know, are they relevant anymore and communities fighting for them once again.

Martin Polley:
Absolutely. There’s been a fantastic movement recently for … with a lot of community groups coming in to try and preserve and re-open where possible lidos but also some of the older indoor swimming pools with some of the classic Victorian buildings. And it’s just wonderful to see this mood because these are wonderful assets. They can be used all year round. They’re not just for the summer. Through the things like the libraries and the community centres and the dance halls. And I think they’re a very important part of our heritage and should very much be encouraged.

Emma Barnett:
Well that is it for this episode.

Make sure you leave us a review on iTunes if you are enjoying the series.

Next time we’ll hear about two more sport and leisure locations which are crucial to England’s identity. And in the meantime do get in touch and shout about the amazing locations on your doorstep using the #100places. That’s the number 100. And don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast so you don’t miss an episode.

Thank you very much to my guests, Professor Martin Polley and Deborah Lamb.

We’ll see you next time for more Irreplaceable destinations.

Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.

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