In 1928, a plucky young Welsh girl named Ida Gaze swims the Bristol Channel with the help of her best friend Freda and the inspiration of her heroine Amelia Earhart. In 1937, on the instructions of the matron, a young skivvy at a grand maternity hospital in London smuggles out an orphaned baby on one of the coldest nights of the year. Now, in a small town in Wales, an old lady named Ceci pieces together these stories and is about to discover the surprising ways in which they link to her own. It begins with two girls in the twenties who left their small Welsh village for the Big Smoke, feeling that the world was changing and everything was possible…
I couldn’t have written it without water.
Living by the sea was one thing. The Bristol Channel, grey, chill and treacherous, was an excellent metaphor, but how to introduce colour, glamour, a splash of art deco aquatic elegance?
Barry Lido, where I’d had many a freezing dip, fitted the bill. Cold Knap they used to call it. With good reason. You could dive in those turquoise waters and come up feeling you’d been skinned in liquid ice. It was all part of the appeal. A cone of chips afterwards, a towel like warm hands on your shoulders, and then it was out through the turnstile with a face tight and cool in the evening sun.
One of the largest outdoor pools in Britain, Barry Lido was set just back from the Bristol Channel. Built in 1926 by men employed on the ‘docket system’ and paid in vouchers which could be exchanged for goods at local shops, the Knap Bathing Pool was 120 yards long, 30 yards wide and held one million gallons of filtered seawater.
It was a thing of splendour, suggesting daring, buoyancy, getting to the other side. Such things occurred on the Welsh coastline. Two years after the pool was built and fifty miles further west, Amelia Earhart landed in a Fokker F7 called Friendship, the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a plane. It was all go in Wales in the 1920s.
So if you have a pool the size of a giant’s bath tub, and more water again welcoming an American, and then you have a young Welsh girl watching and wondering where all this might lead – what the crack of the starting gun at the town’s Annual Gala might signal if you were truly swimming for your life. (They didn’t have Cheryl Cole back then telling girls they were worth it. Earhart appearing out of the sky must have seemed as though God might be a woman after all.)
These days, the lido is long gone and Amelia Earhart is remembered by a plaque in Burry Port.
The other day I took a photo of where the pool glittered like a vast seductive sheet, until 2004 when it was demolished – the concrete dolphin in the children’s pool smashed like splattering water, and the emptiness that had been dug by hand filled back in with bulldozers.
When it rains, water forms where once the pool was an intimation of possibility and endeavour.
‘Take a picture of that puddle,’ a passing woman told me as I lifted the camera. ‘That’s the pool letting us know what we’re missing, that is.’