Swimming is just one of many things I didn’t learn to do when young. The asymmetical bars, whistling through my fingers, and quantitative easing, were others. Living out in the Lancashire countryside there weren’t many pools around and our primary school had other things they wanted to spend time on, like rickets and smacking. (For a long time I was confused about the distinction between corporal and capital punishment, but I think I’ve got it straight now.)
By the time my parents got round to filling this gap (that’s the swimming, not the capital punishment), I was already too old and scared to mount a serious effort. My mother had never learned to swim herself and my father was of the “in the Navy we used to chuck ‘em in and see if they floated” school of self-improvement. So the years passed and I remained landlocked. In truth, it didn’t bother me that much, as even the kids who said they could swim never actually seemed to do so. Returning from exotic holidays (well, compared with mine in Middlesbrough, theirs in the Isle of Wight were deeply impressive), they complained of the sea being too cold and my sense of deprivation stayed within reasonable bounds.
Once every decade or so I would give it another go but it wasn’t until I reached my thirties that a combination of (a) my inability to continue playing contact and racquet sports due to knee injuries, and (b) a strong desire to impress the fairer sex, prompted me once more into the depths. That, and the practical application of the confidence building properties of alcohol. People talk about “cooking wine” to distinguish it from the better stuff: I discovered “swimming whisky”. Eventually, during the fifth of my weekly visits to Stretford leisure centre, I was persuaded to take my feet off the bottom of the pool and never looked back, or down. As this was in fact merely the bottom of the toddlers’ pool, my achievement did little to meet the second of my objectives – see (b) above.
Having at last taken to water like a duck to, er, putty, I was now able to enjoy taking blogdaughter to water parks on holiday, and even manage the odd bit of snorkelling, provided the sea was warm, no more than three feet deep and full of inflatable play equipment.
All this is in fact irrelevant to my subject, the fine architecture frequently associated with swimming pools.
Ten years ago I was aroused from a torpid evening’s surfing through the television channels when I spotted, in a programme called “Restoration”, and fronted by Griff Rhys Jones, a noble but crumbling edifice known as the Victoria Baths in Manchester. Regular visitors to this blog may recall (but, then why should you?) that Manchester was “home” to this blog for twenty years. Indeed, said Baths were but a short pub crawl from Chez Blog and the location for one of my failed attempts to swim. (Strictly speaking, I may have complied with the definition in my ancient Pocket Oxford Dictionary: “swim: progress at or below surface of water by working limbs or body”, but I think we’re being pedantic.) In the early days at the Victoria Baths the water was used first in the Males’ First Class pool, then reused in the Males’ Second Class pool – you can guess where this is heading – and finally in the Females’ pool.
For me the building’s real attraction was its suite of green-tiled Turkish baths, still functioning in a desultory fashion before rising costs and changing fashions eventually called “time” in 1993. My recollection is of being pummelled by eunuchs, but I suspect this may be one of many instances of false memory syndrome on my part.
The Baths is a truly magnificent building, described as Jacobean and Baroque, now Grade II* listed and fully deserving of its original, 1906 description as Manchester’s “water palace”. For the only time in my life I cast a vote in a TV phone poll and thus claim credit for winning the £3.4 million lottery funding for the restoration of the bath complex. Restoration work has now been underway for a decade and there remains much to be done. I had the opportunity last weekend to attend on an open day and the photos below (all courtesy of blogchum, Phil) will pay better testament than any words to the awesome quality of the building (imagine a council being able and willing to fund something like that now), the current state of repair and the huge, public spirited commitment of the Friends of Victoria Baths who have made it this far.
Wikipedia it by all means, but also please visit:
This weekend it was the turn of Saltdean lido on the Sussex coast, just east of Brighton, to open its doors and seek our support. The 1930s brought a fashion for healthy outdoor activity, and swimming in particular, coinciding with the spread of reinforced concrete. For a heady decade or two, thousands would turn up just to watch a one-legged diver or a parade of young ladies in swimwear – though by today’s standards, you might be forgiven for thinking they were wearing overcoats. Saltdean lido is, I understand, an example of an architectural style called Streamline Moderne, a kind of evolution from Art Deco and with a look attributed to the ocean-going liners of the period.
So many of these wonderful structures have now gone but, happily, here – as in Manchester – a determined group of local people have been working hard, firstly to save the lido from demolition or conversion for other uses, and, thereafter, to restore it to former glories. The first lido in this country to be listed, Saltdean – like the Victoria Baths – merits our support. We are lucky in the UK that there are people with the enthusiasm, the knowledge and the bloodymindedness to keep working away to save these irreplaceable assets for the nation. Here’s the website for the lido:
There are two excellent, well illustrated books published by English Heritage which feature the Victoria Baths and Saltdean Lido respectively:
“Great Lengths: The historic indoor swimming pools of Britain”
“Liquid Assets: The lidos and open air swimming pools of Britain”
And, by the way, I can now swim without the whisky. Snorkelling less so.