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Historic Pools: Restoring History

The UK has a rich network of historic swimming pools, but over the years many have closed down. Now, thanks to a renewed appreciation of these architectural beauties, and some out-of-the-box thinking from trusts and community groups, they’re coming back to life. Kath Hudson reports

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management 2019 issue 2
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We’re seeing a resurgence in historic pools
We’re seeing a resurgence in historic pools

Thanks to the 1846 Baths and Wash House Act, the UK has one of the largest collections of historic swimming pools in the world. Almost a century of municipal pool design led to hundreds of pools being created, representing ambitions in architecture and to improve public health.

Sadly, in so many cases, their beauty and grandeur has faded, and they have become relics and costly burdens for those who have to take responsiblity for them. Over the years, as many local authorities failed to make them operationally viable, more than half of the UK’s historic pools closed.

Fortunately, the tide now appears to have turned. Despite years of closures and budget cuts, an increasing number of historic pools are being brought back to life. “I like to think that we’re on a roll,” says Gill Wright, founder of Historic Pools of Britain, a charitable organisation that aims to share best practice among historic pools and raise their profile. “The rate of closures has slowed down and, despite the difficult economy, we are seeing a resurgence of historic pools.”

Community support
This welcome turn of events is attributable to a few factors, according to Wright. Firstly, a growing interest in outdoor swimming led to a resurgence in historic lidos, with many being restored, and this momentum has spilled over to indoor pools. Secondly, historic pools have been championed by leisure trusts and community groups who have taken on the management and thought creatively.

“A successful project needs a group of determined individuals behind it, as well as wider community support. It’s a massive uphill struggle unless the local authority backs it,” says Wright. “But in many cases we see how keeping a historic pool running engenders a sense of pride in a community. They can also become destinations in their own right and contribute greatly to regeneration.”

Such a setting adds another dimension to the swimming experience, which many will appreciate, but also, as Wright points out, the baths often embody important social history: “Under local authority management, historic pools were generally not presented as interesting buildings in their own right, but they are beautiful and historic and, with the right marketing, can be destination cultural attractions.”

A worthy restoration
Wright is part of a team that has been trying for years to resurrect Victoria Baths in Manchester. Created in an era of both gender and class segregation, these baths have an interesting story to tell and are currently open as a heritage and events venue. However, Wright is committed to seeing the baths themselves open again one day and funding is currently being sought based on a new, robust business plan to re-open the Turkish Baths as the next phase of the building restoration.

Elsewhere in Manchester Withington Baths and Leisure Centre, which was taken over by the community to prevent closure in 2015, is hopefully on track to be restored to its former Edwardian glory. It has recently been awarded £82,000 to scope out the extent of restoration needed for the roof and to design programmes and activities to educate members and visitors about the baths’ heritage. Full restoration will be dependent on a second lottery grant of £1.2m.

It is heartwarming that these quirky and charming buildings are now undergoing a renaissance and that there are now enough success stories to show how these historic buildings can be made sustainable.

Jubilee Pool
Art deco lido saved by the community
Abbie Cranage

Cornwall’s Jubilee Pool, an iconic art deco lido overlooking St Michael’s Mount, is an example of a pool on its way to closure that was nursed back to life by a community group and is now a destination for locals and tourists.

Built to celebrate King George V’s silver jubilee in 1935, by the 2000s the local authority was struggling to keep it going, so when it suffered severe storm damage in 2014 it was at serious risk of closure. A passionate community social enterprise, Friends of Jubilee Pool, took over its operation in 2016.

After a £3m fundraising campaign, the lido was refurbished, but with a short summer season the finances remained on a knife edge. Friends of Jubilee Pool thought outside of the box to come up with a strategy to safeguard its future.

"We can now go from a four month operation to a 12 month one" Abbie Cranage

“We’re working with Geothermal Engineering Ltd to make it a year-round pool,” says manager Abbie Cranage. “We’ve now finished drilling and have found geothermal energy, which will allow a section of the pool to be heated. This means we can go from a four month operation to a 12 month one and see a 25 per cent uplift in annual visits.”

This work has been made possible by a crowdfunder campaign. The aim was to raise £350,000, but instead the group raised £430,000, showing the strength of feeling locally. This was matched by investors, and will enable the development of further revenue generating amenities.

Work on the Jubilee Pool was made possible by a crowdfunder campaign, which raised £430,000
Finding geothermal energy will allow the pool to be used year round
Sir Doug Ellis Woodcock Sports Centre
University uses modern gym to make pool sustainable
Aston University in Birmingham refurbished its Grade II listed swimming pool, adding extra facilities

Although refurbishment makes pools easier to sustain, they are still far from straightforward, and extra money has to be set aside for the inevitable maintenance and repair work that comes with old buildings. Subsidising the old buildings with new health and fitness facilities is a good model.

Wright says the Sir Doug Ellis Woodcock Sports Centre at Aston University in Birmingham is a great example of the new and the old working together. “This is the best of both worlds: a state of the art, profitable gym, complemented by a unique historic pool,” she says.

After being acquired by the university from Birmingham City Council for £1 in 1980, the site was redeveloped as a multi-purpose sports centre. However, by 2000 it was falling into disrepair and because the building is Grade II listed, the university had to take the plunge to refurbish it..

To cover the costs of the pool, additional income streams were added with a gym, two sports halls, sauna, steam and dance studios. Ultimately the management is hoping for further funding from the university to add a third sports hall, a larger free weights training area and a functional training suite..

Newcastle City Baths brought back to life by a leisure trust
The Newcastle City Baths were closed by the council five years ago but are due to reopen soon

Tim Mills of Fusion Lifestyle, which runs six unheated, year-round outdoor pools, agrees that the popularity of lidos has ignited a wider interest in historic pools. Since completing its first lido refurbishment in 2006, Fusion Lifestyle has been involved with a number of historic pool projects.

Currently, it is in the final stages of bringing the Grade II listed, neo-Georgian Newcastle City Baths back to life. The leisure trust took out a long term lease, after the baths were closed by the council five years ago, and embarked on a £6m investment, due to be completed in early summer.

The two pool halls are being restored, one as a swimming pool and the other as a health and fitness facility. A studio and bistro are being added, and the Turkish Baths are being completely restored. There are few left in the UK, so they are bound to have a wide appeal.

Mills admits there are many challenges with these projects. “We often ask ourselves why we do it! These projects are not simple or straightforward,” he says. “But they are challenging, unique and interesting.”

“We’re very aware of how important these grand old buildings are to the local community and it’s rewarding to bring something special back: they tend to have a very loyal following. Swimming in one of these great pieces of architecture is a unique and special experience and they have the potential to be a city or regional attraction.”

Always interested in projects involving a special building that has fallen into disrepair and is in danger of being, or is already, closed down, Fusion Lifestyle has two more renovations lined up, for a lido in Ipswich and some indoor baths in Bristol.

One of the original pool halls has been restored as a health and fitness facility
Marshall Street Baths Preserving beauty
Louise Williams

The 1930s-era Marshall Street Baths in Soho were mothballed by the City of Westminster in 1997 due to the amount of investment required, but were reopened in 2007 after a refurbishment by a development company, which involved further health and fitness amenities being added. Now they are operated by Everyone Active.

With original marble floors and an impressive barrel vaulted ceiling, the baths epitomise everything there is to love about historic pools. “We’re very fortunate to have a historic pool at Marshall Street; it’s a real gem in the heart of London,” says general manager Louise Williams. “The pool, with its arched ceilings and natural light, attracts a lot of interest from photographers, fashion designers and film crews who all appreciate its beauty as an amazing backdrop to their work. We’ve even had James Nesbitt and Sport England filming here!”

"Our historic pool is a real gem in the heart of London" - Louise Williams

Williams says day-to-day swimmers also find the pool a joy to swim in. However, beauty doesn’t come easy and running the pool is often a labour of love. “The marble has to be cleaned by hand and some modern cleaning agents and techniques aren’t suitable,” says Williams.

“As a listed building, we have to plan ahead for maintenance issues and upkeep – we can’t just buy the first thing we see. Much consideration goes into finding the approved materials – for example, it took us eight months to source and fit the poolside tiles. That said, it’s worth every bit of extra care.”

The Marshall Street Baths in Soho, London, attract a lot of interest from photographers and film makers, who use it as a beautiful backdrop to their work
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