A brief history of Clevedon Marine Lake (For more detailed information on any section click on the link within the paragraph)

The Marine Lake dates from 1929 but the history of sea bathing in Clevedon dates from the early years of the 19th Century when it was very much used as a form of therapy and not enjoyment.

The original idea for enclosing part of Salthouse Bay was first documented in meeting records as far back as 1896 but at that time it was
unanimously condemned as little more than amusing.
  It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that the idea was re considered and much debated and finally, in the late 1920s the Marine Lake was built in its current location, after Councillor Fred Nutting bought land on the foreshore with his own money and gifted it to the Town, virtually shaming the council into building the lake. Once built the lake replaced
“Stinking Corner” where weed and dead creatures were dumped by the tides to rot and scent the air! In post war Britain it was seen also as a way to employ many of the towns out of work and clauses were put into the construction contact that 90% of the labour force used in the construction of the lake came from the local unemployed population.

 

Marine Lake officially opened on 30th March 1929 and during the early years the lake was incredibly popular and became every more so lavishly equipped with features such as changing cubicles, deckchairs, a diving platform and a pavilion.

 

After Word War 2 the lake become increasingly popular with locals and visitors alike becoming the magnet on The Bristol Channel for all water-sports, bringing holiday makers from far and wide with donkey rides, boats for hire, the Salthouse miniature railway, crowded promenades and floods of deckchairs. Local lady Joyce Gregory and her daughter Rita took on the day to day management of the lake and successfully ran the lake for the next 30 years, becoming something of a local legend. Rita herself was an extremely successful competitive swimmer and diver and completed the vast majority of her training here in Marine Lake. She won the ladies cup in the Clevedon Long Swim a staggering 19 times.

Sadly in the 1980s use of the lake began to wain and so did the will and finances to adequately maintain it and a period of decline began. Vandalism and disruption increased and Rita and her mother stopped working there. Some of the facilities were removed and the council (Woodspring as it was at that time) put up notices to ‘ban swimming’… though just how respected they were is not documented! Despite the decline Clevedon Sailing Club bucked the trend and maintained some lake use notably when they launched a fleet of Minnow Dinghies in 1985.

In the early part of the 21st century the lake finally saw something of a renaissance, when local councillors and began to take an interest, most notably Councillor David Shopland and subsequently Councillor Arthur Knott. Cllr Knott had a particular interest in the lake as the Clevedon Sailing Club Cadet Officer and recognised its importance and value. Cllr Knott established the Marine lake Enthusiasts Society (MARLENS) in 2004 with the aim of promoting the Marine Lake and urging the authorities to do something about its continuing decline before it was too late. During this period the Clevedon model boat club revived model boating on the lake, and Marlens and the Sailing Club worked together to offer ‘Have a go‘ sessions… which sparked great public interest and could probably be credited with making North Somerset Council (which had by now replaced Woodspring) and Clevedon Town Council take real notice of the lake and its potential once again.

In 2012 North Somerset Council, Clevedon Town Council, Marlens and Clevedon Civic Society jointly began the process of securing funding through the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore and regenerate the Marine Lake. In 2014 £800,000 was secured and work began in March 2015, with a scheduled re-opening date of Spring 2016.

Early History of Sea Bathing in Clevedon

Although sea bathing generally had been promoted by various doctors from the Restoration onwards, and had sporadically been practised both in Britain and on the Continent since then, it would seem that it did not reach Clevedon until the very early years of the 19th century.

The first reference to sea bathing proper at Clevedon comes from a Bristol newspaper: 1823 April 26 Bristol Mirror – ‘George Cook respectfully informs the ladies and gentlemen of Bristol, and the public generally, that during the ensuing season he will have Four Bathing Machines on Clevedon Beach which will be drawn in and out of the water by Capstans. Experienced persons will attend the machines and every possible care will be taken.’

Although apparently new to Clevedon bathing machines had been used at Scarborough as early as 1748.

Sea bathing had been invented by the British as a form of therapy, not enjoyment, and this model of treatment by immersion had become the standard in the Continental resorts and those in the Baltic and North Sea, as well as in North America, by the end of the 18th Century. It would not be until the early 19th Century that the idea of enjoying bathing and swimming in the sea began to creep in. This was the point at which Clevedon seems to have come into the picture as a potential holiday resort.

In the early years of the 19th Century Clevedon developed rapidly. In 1828 Samuel Taylor of Hutton purchased land between the sea and the broad path which was to become Wellington Terrace. Today, that site is occupied by a bungalow called Seawalls, which stands on the plot north of the Royal Pier Hotel. The level part of the plot provided enough space for Taylor to build a house, while the sloping cliff was low enough to allow the making of an enclosure which could be filled by the tide and would then retain seawater for the bathers. The importance of this on the Bristol Channel, where the range between high and low tide is some 47 feet at its extreme, was paramount if you were aiming to make your money from those who were bathing in sea water.

Throughout the remainder of the 19th century these early Baths initially flourished and subsequently floundered in equal measure and passed hands several times. The Rates in 1900, as well as the census in 1901, list no occupant for the Baths though Turkish Baths were available in Wellington Terrace a short distance away. In 1905, the old Baths’ outer wall fell into the sea, after they had been left unoccupied for several years, to be followed by the demolition of the remaining building a couple of years afterwards, it having become a public danger. Evidently they had long been little used as to have become impossible to run as a going concern.

Prior to the complete loss of the Baths though the Clevedon Local Board of Health was, by 1886, discussing a variety of ways and means by which facilities in the Baths and on the shore might be updated and made more attractive, and the Bathing regulations from a directory of Clevedon for 1897 make interesting reading.

As is the way with things discussion dragged on and during the subsequent 15 years or so several schemes were reported to the Board (and its successor the Council), but the Board was pre-occupied with the purchase of the pier in 1890 and little appears to have progressed. In retrospect some of the schemes proposed seem amusing including some kind of cage in which swimmers could be towed out to reach the tide, or the erection of tanks at a height of 50 feet into which water would have to be pumped. At that time though it was another scheme which was proposed by man attending a public meeting of ratepayers in 1896 that was unanimously condemned as little more than amusing – the idea of enclosing Salt House Bay at a cost of £12,000 to form a lake suitable for yachts – and there the matter rested… for the time being!

The Building of Marine Lake in Salthouse Bay

During the early 20th Century much wrangling on the subject of enclosed swimming baths for Clevedon took place but in October 1926, urged on by an exceptionally forward-looking Councillor, Frederick Nutting, the earlier proposition of enclosing Salt House Bay was again taken up by the Council.

Mr Gower Pimm, the engineer consulted, suggested that the scheme should be adopted at a cost of £5,440, with a wall 17.5 feet above ordnance datum, needing a wall 10 feet high. This would give a satisfactory water line and water area.

After a period of negotiation and debate … a decision was finally made by the Inspector for the Ministry of Health in July 1927 that the scheme should go ahead.

Mr Nutting purchased Salt House from the owner, who had objected on the grounds that part of the sea wall on his land might be adversely affected. This enabled him to sell the Council the woods behind the house at cost thereby forming an access to Poets’ Walk. The Crown sold the rights to the foreshore to the town for £150, and Mr Gower Pimm applied to the Mercantile Board of Trade for approval of the scheme.

In September 1927 tenders were put out for the scheme, with a clause inserted that 90% of the men employed must be local. This would ease the appalling post war unemployment situation in the town at that time. Tenders from the seventeen firms which applied were closely examined, and that from Messrs J Moore and Co of Nailsea, at £5195 and 6d was accepted. After some problems with the Board of Trade, work began after March 1928 on a slightly reduced plan which was to enclose an area of three and a half acres. The work involved clearing the bottom of the and moving the material to make a raised promenade inland of the sea wall stretching 875 feet. A lower promenade was made between the sea wall and the lake, so that people and bathers could walk around the inland edge.

Amazingly, after decades of argument, counter-argument and delays, the lake was in use for boating in August 1928, the income being £48/7/0d for boating and £14/4/3d for bathing, a total of £62/11/3d for the first week of the month alone!

In November 1928 the Ministry of Health was asked to approve a request for a further loan of £1,500 for extra work including a bandstand, shelter and bathing stations. The lake was almost complete! A pavilion was not included at this point. The plans were sanctioned by the Ministry in March 1929 with alterations to the path round Wain’s Hill. Sir Ambrose Elton had generously ceded his right to the paths which now form Poets’ Walk.

Tenders had been put out for the bathing and boating, but without any satisfactory offers, so the Council decided that they would run the scheme themselves for the first year. The needs of the newly formed Clevedon Swimming Club, as well as those of the Aquatic Sports (including the Long Swim) held since 1927, and swimming for local schools, were discussed and agreed.

Official opening and early years

At last, on 30 March 1929, the opening of both the lake and recreation grounds on Salt House Fields was performed by the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Councillor W H Eyles.

During its first year of operation various letters were received, some causing amusement. One was from a lady who complained at the indecency of the bathing costumes worn by young women with men looking on. Another asked for more and better towels to be hired out as ‘I asked for a towel there yesterday and was supplied with a grubby looking object which could not possibly have been to a laundry for months – if ever! When I suggested to the attendant that I should prefer a clean one, he replied, quite cheerfully, that it was the only one he had, and that any way, it was quite all right, as he had used it himself that morning!

Over the next 15 years the lake was lavishly equipped with an imposing timber clubhouse/changing-room, high diving boards, springboards, a bathing raft, a row of bathing huts and a bandstand. The lake became the magnet on The Bristol Channel for all water-sports, bringing holiday makers from far and wide with donkey rides, boats for hire, the Salthouse miniature railway, crowded promenades and floods of deckchairs. Fred Nutting’s vision was now a reality!

 

After World War Two

In the period after World War 2 and until the increase in foreign travel in the 1980s the lake was a popular destination for both Clevedon residents and visitors, bringing in crowds of 400 plus in the hot summer of 1976.

From 1957, during school holidays, Rita Gregory helped her mother, Joyce, run the lake. They worked there for almost 30 years, during which time Rita became one of the most accomplished swimmers and divers in Clevedon Swimming Club’s history, winning the Ladies’ Cup in the Long Swim a staggering 19 times, Western Counties Springboard Championship 5 times, representing Somerset in the Inter-County Diving Championships for 11 consecutive years : too many achievements to list here. Her career is well-documented in a book by local man Chris Stone ‘Clevedon’s Sporting Heroes.’ Because the diving stage was not quite the 5 metres high required for championships, Rita practised diving from a board held down on the top of the railing by strong members of the club.

 

Period of decline

With the increase in foreign travel in the 1980s use of the lake began to decline and so did the will and finances to really adequately maintain it. In the subsequent 20 years until the early 21st century Woodspring Council made some efforts to maintain the lake but sadly, low maintenance took its toll, and when in the middle of the 1980s vandals began to appear and cause disruption, Rita put her foot down, and her mother gave up the lake management altogether. For the lake, this meant the end of supervised swimming, and the Council (Woodspring Council as it was then) put up notices to forbid swimming. The access steps were removed: in fact the pump house would have gone if it had not formed part of the lake wall!

Although no longer ‘running the lake’ Rita and Joyce still saw in the millennium in style – swimming  in the last few minutes of the old millennium and the first few minutes of the new millennium as their own celebration in the lake.

Afterwards, dressed only in their towels, they went up on Dial Hill to watch the beacons, wondering what the others there would say if they knew they hadn’t a stitch on under their bathrobes!

Despite this lack of official interest from the authorities the Clevedon Sailing Club took a lead towards the future by launching a sponsored fleet of Minnow Sailing Dinghies in 1985. The boats carried logos of enthusiastic local businesses and encouraged the growth of a large group of sailing cadets. These cadets and their parents sailed an awesome fleet of Mirror Dinghies on the Bristol Channel through the 1980s making mass crossings to Woodspring Bay and Flatholm.

 

Renaissance

The debate about the lake was revived in 2001 when Councillor David Shopland began to push for work and improvements for the lake. Problems continued to be left unsolved though, and it was not until 2003 that work started on a project to clean the lake and refurbish the promenade around it. The mud on the lake floor had built up to such an extent that a digger, used to remove the sludge, sank up to the cab. Rubble and debris was also removed. The wall was raised by a foot and repairs made, but these were purely to prevent further deterioration.

It was at this point that Clevedon Councillor Arthur Knott began to take an interest. As the Clevedon Sailing Club’s Cadet Officer he knew that the lake was invaluable as a teaching resource for young club members. It meant that in enclosed waters techniques could be learned safely, without the ferocious rip of the currents in the Bristol Channel. Windsurfers also used the lake, as did canoe and rowing enthusiasts.

In December 2003 the gloom was lifted at a North Somerset Council public meeting “Vision for Marine Lake” and, early in 2004, a detailed report on the lake was commissioned. At the launch of The Clevedon Community Plan, in March 2004, the Sailing ‘Club Cadet Section’ contributed a stall with one of the original Minnows as the centrepiece. On its deck Arthur Knott’s “THE NEW VISION” – promoted by “The Marine Lake Enthusiasts Society” – was displayed and the first members of MARLENS were recruited by the cadets.

After a long campaign of public meetings and angry confrontations with the Town Council the “Marine Lake Design Competition” sponsored by MARLENS and the Clevedon Mercury was launched. The winning designs, showed a second slipway to allow smooth progression for youngsters from the lake to the sea, a boatstore, a field study centre on stilts with a refreshment patio right on the sea below Poets’ Walk. On 28th January the commissioned report from Mott-MacDonald was released suggesting a positive three-phase revival programme for the lake.

In May and June 2005, the Sailing Club – in partnership with MARLENS – offered “Have a go at Sailing” sessions to primary school children in Clevedon, Yatton, Nailsea and Backwell. The popularity of these sessions generated huge public interest. Clevedon Model Boat Club revived model-boating on the lake led by lake enthusiast Mike Mayhew the technical whizz-kid who built the models and kept water in the lake by his personal efforts with an ancient “Sawdust & Ashes System”! Mike is now retained by North Somerset Council as their trouble-shooter at the lake. Regular formal discussion between North Somerset, MARLENS and Clevedon Sailing Club began on 30th June with long term “Seafront Re-generation” on the agenda.

In 2005 Marlens held the first MARLENS festival, supported by North Somerset and Clevedon Town Council. The festival has continued annually since and was rebranded the more inclusive Clevedon Tides Festival in September 2014.

After Arthur’s death in 2007, Joe Norman took over running Marlens, and has continued ever since with great zest and, suiting the society’s name, his predecessor’s valuable qualities, enthusiasm.

 

 The Heritage Lottery Funded 2015 Project onwards

In 2014 the Heritage Lottery Fund agreed to fund restoration works at the Marine Lake following the submission of a partnership bid by North Somerset Council, Marlens, Clevedon Town Council and Clevedon Civic Society.

The lake was drained in March 2015 and work began to:

  • reinforce the existing sea wall by construction of an 800mm thick concrete backing wall and capping which will raise the level of the wall by 150mm
  • complete stone repairs to the seaward face of the wall
  • create a new ramp at the West end of the Lake to allow access for all to the lower promenade
  • refurbish existing hand railing and installation of new hand railing to the ramped section
  • install a children’s water play area
  • provide a new surface to the existing lower promenade
  • install of a new, larger penstock
  • stabilise the existing rock face at the West end of the lake
  • repair and improve, by means of a concrete encasement, the model boat pond wall and installation of a new penstock between the model boat pond and the main lake

 

Alongside the physical improvements at the lake there is an entire Activity Plan dedicated to bringing the Marine Lake back to life through an innovative and inspiring community engagement program.

Once the restoration is completed the lake will once again become a community asset with Marlens at the helm as they take on the responsibility for the day to day running of the lake.