A reflection of Britain’s golden age of swimming, historic swimming pools offer us a unique glimpse into our nation’s sporting history, when swimming was the ultimate pastime.
Today a high proportion of the country’s ‘forgotten’ baths are in a fragile state. The boom in public swimming took off in the early 1900’s and by the 1940’s around 145 local authority pools had been built in England alone.
Many stayed open for decades, but have since been forced to shut by dwindling visitor numbers, council cuts or in favour of high-spec fitness centres.
However, an increasing number of historic pools are being saved by dedicated community groups and organisations who are taking on the challenge of restoring them to their former glory and ultimately reaping the rewards.
“Historic pools show us why we became a swimming nation and how swimming and social patterns changed over the twentieth century,” comments Gill Wright, project development manager for the Historic Pools of Britain organisation.
“They also hold the stories and records of our past swimming heroes, and they are capable of interpreting and communicating this history in a unique way – as they are living buildings, still serving their original purpose.”
The term ‘historic’ is used to cover any pool that is pre 1940, plus later pools which are either listed or are deemed by their operators or local community to be of historic value. According to the Played in Britain Historic Pools Directory, a trusted source by Historic Pools of Britain, there are 112 pre-1940 indoor pools in use in the UK, plus 67 functioning outdoor pools.
In terms of disused pools, there are currently 160 indoor and seven outdoor historic pools that are not in use, including those that have been converted to a new use as well as those which are simply empty.
“For historic indoor pools, the cost of restoring and maintaining the fabric of the building is usually the biggest challenge,” says Gill. “Restoration of course is only necessary if the buildings have been allowed to deteriorate by their owners in the past, this is often the case as local authorities have been faced with shrinking funds, competing demands and no statutory obligation to provide swimming facilities.“
However, in my view, well managed historic indoor pools tend to provide good service in return for the investment – they were built to last which can’t always be said for their modern counterparts.”
The cost of providing public swimming facilities has historically been significantly higher than the potential receipts. However the gap has shrunk over the last 20 years as many operators, in particular leisure trusts and community trusts, have developed efficient models of operation that tailor provision well in response to local need, maximise income and keep costs down.
Running historic public pools at break-even or better has become increasingly common, though operators will always have to work very hard to achieve this.
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