Claire Slobodian tests the waters, and the menu, on a spa day at the Thames Lido. Is Reading’s gloriously restored luxury outdoor swimming pool, spa and restaurant worth the price tag?
The Thames Lido was probably the most anticipated Reading opening of 2017. The team behind the Bristol Lido have spent three years and £3.5m renovating the former Edwardian baths at King’s Meadow, which my dad apparently used to visit for school swimming lessons and which had been abandoned since 1974.
After the doors finally opened last October, I treated myself to a discounted spa day voucher in the Thames Lido’s advent calendar (we did one of those at Explore too). Then I visited in February and intended to write this review in March. It was a beautiful place and I’d had a lovely, restful day. So why didn’t I feel inspired to write a review? It was good, but not quite perfect and for the money, I came away thinking there was a little something lacking.
And then I visited again last week, on that first sunny day of the year. I grabbed a poolside table, a set lunch and an Aperol spritz before going for a late swim. The sun was beaming down on the pool, filled with female friends on a spa day, serious swimmers and a father taking his adorable 6-month old to the water. I saw the Lido in another light; there was a buzz. Everyone was enthusiastic and relaxed. Strangers spoke to each other – about the pool, the food or just asking for the time. It felt like it had come into its own, a community space, like the lidos of Brockwell or Portishead.
But it’s not quite a community project, of course. The King’s Meadow Baths Campaign, who originally saved the site from becoming a car park, couldn’t match the Bristol Lido team’s bid. So it’s now an “urban retreat”, with outdoor pool, massages and a restaurant. Membership is £59 a month and a three-hour swim pass is £20. That’s a lot of money for a day at the pool, so is it worth it?
My spa and lunch day was the best way to put that to the test. It included all day access to the Thames Lido, a two course set lunch and a massage. On arrival, I was checked in, after a bit of a confusion, and given a towel, flip flops and a robe, before receiving an introductory tour and getting a chance to take a first proper look at the restoration.
The building is stunning: gleaming red brick mixes with a new wall of glass doors to keep the restaurant bathed in sun. The original wrought iron columns are now a muted blue, which lets the two sauna rooms stand out in vibrant playbox paints of shocking pink and banana yellow. The outside shower cubicles are covered in playful deckchair print curtains. There’s a real sense of fun about the whole project.
Given the prices, everything is a step up from your average swimming pool and there are no damp communal changing rooms here. Chlorine levels are kept deliberately low, so the Lido encourages a ‘wash naked’ policy. There’s a private shower and gorgeously-scented LidoSpa products in every cubicle – both the bigger shower rooms inside and the fun wooden cubbies beside the pool. They’re perfect for summer but pretty flipping bracing in February, I can tell you!
Along with the low chlorine levels, the Lido encourages saving water, so you have to keep hold of the shower chain for it to flow. There are also no lockers. You’re given a garment bag and take your belongings back to reception for safe keeping. At first, this seems charming, but it can get a bit frustrating when you have to keep traipsing back to pick up your book or something from your bag and the staff can’t remember which one’s which.
So, it’s not quite luxury, on the level of, say, Nirvana Spa, where your every need is anticipated. It feels more natural and laid back, halfway between a community pool and a spa.
The pool itself is 25 metres of cobalt blue Italian tile. Because of the low chlorine, the water feels very fresh and doesn’t sting. It’s heated to 21-25 degrees and is pleasant for swimming but a bit nippier than your average pool. After one or two lengths, I was fine.
There are no lanes and splashy, Olympic-style tumble turns are discouraged, so it was easy to amble about, switching between lazy floating and proper laps. For a brief 15 minute period at about 3pm, I had the pool entirely to myself. I did the breaststroke in the middle, just as the sun appeared from behind a cloud and a cluster of birds chirped at the sky. It was a truly peaceful, inspiring moment and I was more relaxed than I’d ever felt in a darkened spa room.
However, it’s not always peaceful. Between 12-2pm, the serious swimmers descended. Members worked up lightning fast lengths in their lunch breaks and it got very busy. That’s a good time to pop into the restaurant if you’re on a spa day, or head into the warmth of the deep hot tub, or the two saunas.
Upstairs are the massage rooms, all relaxed and stylish without being lavish. My 60-minute hot stone massage was a perfect medium pressure with heated palm-sized smooth pebbles rolled across the skin before hand strokes. It was just the ticket to soothe my sore muscles. Afterwards, I was directed to the beam-filled rest room in the loft to relax with a pot of peppermint tea until I was ready to return to the pool for moonlight swimming.
At lunchtime the aroma of roast meat reached my nose in the pool and I hungrily made my way out to the restaurant. The Thames Lido is possibly the only new Reading opening to get a review in The Guardian and has been pitched as our answer to relaxed, special occasion dining, which is still somewhat elusive in Reading (unless you go to our marvellous gastropub, The Lyndhurst).
The kitchen is headed up by executive chef Freddie Bird, who won awards at the Bristol Lido, and the food is influenced by flavours from the Mediterranean and north Africa. It boasts wood burning ovens and a charcoal grill, so the menu is full of smoke-infused everything
Spa days include the set menu, which is usually £16 for two courses, or £20 for three courses. I spotted a few tempting dishes on the a la carte menu, the slow roast shoulder of Pyrenean lamb particularly caught my eye, but at £23 for the main course, it wasn’t enough to divert me from the set lunch.
The set menu changes daily, but from my menu I opted for the tarama with confit egg to start. This caused the first of a couple of confusions over dish names and menu wording – a few taps on my phone were enough to remind me tarama was taramasalata, but not enough to tell me the menu didn’t list the bread and pickled cabbage salad it would also come with. I overheard the couple at the table next to me instantly discount this unfamiliar dish name for ‘not coming with much’.
When the dish arrived, it was my first inkling into the creativity at play in the kitchen. It was a good example of simple items from elsewhere on the menu coming together to make an innovative, flavourful set dish. The thick chunk of sourdough bread had a generous slather of subtle but salty taramasalata and the pert little sunset-orange egg yolk oozed perfectly at the touch of my knife. That unexpected tart cabbage was welcome to balance the otherwise creamy dish.
For my main course, I plump for the wood roast whole quail with yoghurt. The quail meat was tender and infused with a bonfire smokiness. It came on freekeh, a durum wheat grain, which was steeped in the quail juices and a nutty, rich brown butter. It rivalled the most indulgent of risottos and it was a challenge to restrain myself from licking the plate (admittedly, my 2km morning swim may also have had something to do with that).
Carbs – or really anything ‘filling’ – were a rarity on the set menu and if I was being ungenerous, I’d say that portions are on the small side. But the more likely answer is that they are balanced to not get you bloated, especially if you’re planning on swimming afterwards.
Desserts mainly focus on the Lido ices, which take up two thirds of the menu. On my sunny day visit I cooled down with the blood orange and Campari sorbet, which was zesty and sharp, with a kick at the back of my throat. But the two scoops were oddly grainy and just not quite delicate enough for the £6 tag: a Calippo in the sunshine, it wasn’t.
Frustrations aside, I found the food at the Thames Lido restaurant full of the most original and complex flavours. It’s the most innovative menu I’ve tried anywhere in Reading.
Service sadly still had kinks to work out. On my first visit, it took two minutes of flagging down to get a menu. Trying to get someone interested in my order took another ten. When I did order, my waitress was personable and well informed. She also navigated me through the extensive wine list to a glass of a beautiful, buttery white rioja that went perfectly with the dappled sunshine and my meal.
Later, in a move that I’ve now spotted in lots of Reading restaurants, after the plate from my main course was taken away, staff didn’t reappear. I was left sitting so long, I talked myself out of asking for dessert and another wine and popped back in the pool.
So the Thames Lido may not be perfect yet. It still needs refinement. Over my three visits since February, I’ve seen them make changes as the months go on. The once bare relaxation area now has tropical plants for ambience, later massage appointments have been added, the menu has cut back on quite so many unfamiliar dish names. But really, for the cost of membership, and dinner, I would have expected all of those to have been honed within a couple of months of opening.
And yet, despite all that, when the sun is shining on the water, you’ve got a glass of that white rioja in your hand and you’re surrounded by the sound of swimmers lapping their way through the pool, it’s really, really hard to care about all of those issues.
The Thames Lido is a welcoming, peaceful and enjoyable space. Once you’re ensconced inside its red brick walls it’s difficult to believe you’re only a five minute walk from the traffic-filled Vastern Road. An ‘urban retreat’ is one of those terms businesses often bandy around for their brochures, but in this case, you really are retreating from the fumes and noise of town.
However, it comes with a price tag. £20 is a lot to spend on a half day at the pool and having to bring your own towel feels a bit cheeky. Spa days start at £95 so most bookings will be for treats or special occasions. For that money, you really want it to be worth it and when the sun isn’t on their side, the Thames Lido still needs work. If they manage slick restaurant service, a seamless reception process and faster (or even just fast) wifi for the many freelance MacBook surfers I spotted in the bar, it will soon be worthy of five stars, but not quite yet.
So, skip the a la carte menu. Book yourself in for a spa and lunch package, or pull up a seat at the poolside tables and spend a lazy day exploring the tapas menu with a good book. On a sunny day, it’s the most beautiful spot in Reading and almost like being on holiday. But you’re only a five minute walk from Reading station.
Thames Lido, Napier Road, RG1 8FR. 01182 070 640, view website. The spa and lunch day package is £95. Book online.
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.