Chris Romer-Lee talks about new plans for Thames-based urban pools at Victoria Embankment

Temple pool

The Temple Baths project for the Victoria Embankment would comprise three pools filled with freshwater, not river water (Studio Octopi)

If you like swimming, you can’t have failed to notice the buzz around urban ‘wild swimming’ at the moment. A few months ago, Gizmodo ran a piece about seven cities that were turning their rivers and lakes into swimming pools.

Then The Guardian had a feature the other day that tapped into the zeitgeist with a piece that slightly spuriously linked David Walliams with the new urban swimming trend (as far as I’m aware he hasn’t stepped foot in The Thames since his epic 2012 Sports Relief swim which made him quite ill).

I even waded into the urban wild swimming discussion with a piece in men’s lifestyle blog, Brandish.tv, which mentioned plans to build a new floating pool in the Thames as well as natural ponds as part of the massive development at King’s Cross.

But, just when you couldn’t get any more excited about urban swimming, along comes YET another announcement. Studio Octopi, the company which initially envisioned the scheme for a floating pool at Blackfriars, has produced a new set of plans for a swimming development on Victoria Embankment.

Importantly, rather than having to wait for the £4.2 billion super sewer to be built in 2023, the new Victoria Embankment pools – comprising 25×8 metre lap pool, a 5×5 metre octagonal paddling pool and a 12×8 metre plunge pool – would used freshwater rather than Thames River water. This will almost certainly help to counter some of the arguments about swimming in polluted water. You can read the full story on the Evening Standard’s website here: http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/plans-to-regenerate-victoria-embankment-with-55m-swimming-pool-that-floats-on-the-river-thames-9667805.html

Chris Romer Lee after swimming in The Thames at Hammersmith recently

Chris Romer-Lee (above) after swimming in The Thames as part of an organised swim at Hammersmith recently. He doesn’t look to harmed by the experience either!

We caught up with Chris Romer-Lee, Director and Co-Founder of architects Studio Octopi, to talk about the latest £5.5 million Thames Baths project:

Why have you decided to unveil new plans for pools on The Thames?

The original plan was a vision for 20 years time when the river will be clean and the super sewer will have been built. On the back of that we had so much interest and good press that we began to address the main criticism – that everyone would like to part of it but it was just one of those visions.

So we thought about how we can get people on the river away from navigational issues but also looking at the issue around the cleanliness of the water. We looked at various pontoons which you could make bespoke and which would hold the pools and fresh water within them. It’s also important that it is shrouded in native planting to the Thames to communicate the fact that the river does grow things! We want to get Londoners back in touch with the river.

The plans are for three small-ish pools? Did you not think about producing plans for something a bit bigger, including an Olympic sized pool?

Unfortunately in central London there are just very few locations where you are going to get two metres of water at low tide so you can actually float something, because the Port of London Authority just won’t let you rest anything on the river bed. As long as the pool doesn’t touch the bottom, and it doesn’t go into the navigational channel, we shouldn’t have any problems. The current design is at its max because it can’t go out any further because it would be in the navigational channel and would also be too close to HMS President and Wellington which are either side.

What is the appeal of Victoria Embankment? There’s not much there is there?

The site really interests us because the North Bank of The Thames is probably the last neglected part of inner London Thames because it’s dominated by the four lane Victoria Embankment Road. There’s very little provision for people to actually enjoy the river along that stretch. Very few people know about the area at all or the Temple Stairs (where there used to be a Frost Fair in the 17th Century, see http://www.museumoflondonprints.com/image/139609/abraham-hondius-a-frost-fair-on-the-thames-at-temple-stairs-1684). There are plans to open up a new cycle highway too along that stretch of the embankment and to widen the pavement slightly. These are projects that the City of London is looking at doing.

What has the response been like from the City of London about creating these pools?

We’ve been to see City of London and they are pretty positive about it. They want us to meet the planners to discuss it further. But we also need to talk to the Port of London Authority. Momentum is good at the moment because we have had a lot of good press and there is an exhibition coming up (Urban Plunge – see details below) which will be full of urban swimming plans from around the world.

All along our vision has been about opening more than one of these pools. We’d like to do two or three at least so you have them cropping up at various intervals along The Thames. We want to mimic what happens in Lake Zurich with all the Swimming Baths back to back along the lake with each one tuned for different types of people: one for kids, one for couples, one for women only etc. I like the idea this isn’t just a one off – that if you have one in Richmond, it would be very different from one on the embankment.

How would the pools be filled?

Either we would collect rainwater under the decking to fill the pools or it would be topped up by freshwater – tap water effectively. We would have a wild swimming experience so it wouldn’t be chlorinated, but it will be treated in some way. We are looking at various pumps and systems used by natural pools. The core idea is to resist turning it into a chlorinated, mediterranean blue pool. It’s a much more raw thing – where people might just come for the spectacle.

One of the most important things is that when you are in the pool you see through the cut outs which are in the greenery into the river and the boats going past even though you are going to be about one metre higher.

What happens to the pools in winter?

We realise that not everyone is going to want to jump into freezing cold water in the winter. The small one could become a big sauna or you could put a cover over the pools like they did in Victorian times when there were similar structures used for gyms in the winter. Or we could cover the whole thing and it could become a corporate/cultural event space. The baths in Bern have a massive cultural following and this is something we also like the idea of doing. Ice skating would be good too, but Somerset House is only few hundred yards away.

Of course London isn’t the only city with plans for a pool on the River. There is also the Josephine Baker pool which is already on The Seine in Paris. 

From an architectural point of view I don’t think it (Piscine Joesphine Baker) does a lot for The Seine. It looks quite monstrous and I’d imagine when you swim in it you can barely see the river. We want to create something that is more about the river than a flashy piece of architecture – that’s what’s inspired us.

It’s about educating people, and encouraging the flora and fauna to return to the river. There aren’t any places I can think of where you can wander along the River in central London and see something growing. There is nothing that says ‘this river is living’. But if you go a little bit further out to Wandsworth they’ve got a little nature reserve going on there where they’ve cut back the river walk and planted a whole section with reeds and rushes and they are monitoring how they can get that to grow.

What do you think of the plans at King’s Cross where you will be able to swim in giant ponds?

I think it’s very exciting: as mad as ours. I will certainly be queueing up in October to give it a go. I think it’s a pretty bold decision to open in October, not the Spring. It’s a similar experience but we’ll see how popular it is over the winter and whether it survives through to the summer.

One of the challenges of projects like ours is how they are funded. It needs some public finance to make it happen because it’s part of the city. So it will be interesting to see how the King’s Cross project will fund itself.

Aerial shot of what the pool at Victoria Embankment would look like

Aerial shot of what the pool at Victoria Embankment would look like.

Urban Plunge: New Designs for Natural Swimming in Our Cities is at Roca London Gallery from 11 September to 10 January.

For more information about The Thames Baths Project go to ThamesBaths.com. You can also visit Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ThamesBaths) and Twitter (@ThamesBaths)