Judith Wojtowicz reports on efforts to protect and preserve iconic pool buildings…
When people talk about buildings of cultural and architectural importance, swimming pools rarely feature very highly on the list… perhaps they should, according to Historic Pools of Britain (HPB). This membership organisation, run by a voluntary board of trustees, was set up in 2015 to celebrate, champion and campaign for historic pools (indoor and outdoor pre-1945) by providing a shared voice and opportunity for mutual support and learning.
Pool members include one recognised by the World Monuments Fund (Moseley Road Baths, Birmingham); one that was damaged by a Luftwaffe bomb during World War II (Peterborough Lido) and another that for a while was used as a trout farm (Cleveland Pools, Bath). All have their own unique story and depend on the hard work and dedication of volunteers that has seen many of them brought back to life, and campaigns launched to save others.
In addition to the 30 pool members there are dozens more historic pools across the UK, some of which are actively working to restore or re-invent themselves, while others are falling into decay. Chairman of Historic Pools of Britain Amanda Harwood, herself a keen swimmer and underwater photographer, believes this represents a huge opportunity to attract new members.
“Our aim is to bring together people with a common interest from architects and historians to swimmers and enthusiasts who feel as we do, that these historic pools have an important part to play and should be seen as an asset rather than a liability,” she said. With that in mind, HPB also welcomes individual and corporate members, anyone who shares their aim of preserving and conserving the country’s architectural, social and cultural swimming heritage.
While many pools have been listed or placed on the ‘at risk’ register by English Heritage for their protection, the cost of maintenance combined with the fact many of these gems have already been lost, HPB remains vigilant and open to inquiries from any pool of significance, even those built after 1945. Actor and travel writer Griff Rhys Jones, who fronted the first BBC television series ‘Restoration’ in 2003 believes that communities need their history.
Quoted recently in a newspaper article, he said: “The best solution is to invest in what makes our cities worthwhile… romance, heritage, conservation, elegance and history” – sentiments echoed by Historic Pools of Britain. The organisation can trace its beginnings to Victoria Baths in Manchester, a unique and iconic structure of national significance thanks to its sheer scale and ornate decorative features. The baths gained wider prominence after winning the first Restoration series with prize money of £3m from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help kick-start its revival.
The project attracted more public votes than all the other 29 finalists put together raising its profile and gaining momentum well beyond the Greater Manchester area. Having fallen into ‘rack and ruin’ after being closed in 1993, the baths today have been partially transformed into a thriving community and cultural space, with more to come. This is thanks in no small part to the energy and dedication of Gill Wright, a volunteer and later project development manager for over 20 years, founder of Historic Pools of Britain.
Other pools came to visit, seeking advice and sharing their own story, sowing the seeds for what became HPB. In fact, the idea of a national resource to provide encouragement, support and practical advice was highlighted in a 2009 book called ‘Great Lengths’. Co-author Simon Inglis made a prescient observation at that time: “There is a case for the setting-up of a national organisation focused not only on user groups but on the issues of conserving and managing historic baths themselves, with a central point of contact and a website.”
Gill’s experience and pioneering vision was in total alignment and proved a big success. Following her untimely death in 2021, the trustees and volunteers of HPB are determined to build on her legacy. Inquiries never stop, be it from pools facing closure, people seeking advice on how to prepare a grant application and even requests to store historic pool archives. “To meet these changing demands, our focus now is to review and update the original strategic plan and assess how best to expand our vision,” said chairman Amanda.
Fellow trustee Mike Kirkman worked closely with Gill after meeting her at a Victoria Baths open day. “She played an integral part in securing its future through her absolute belief and commitment, principles she applied equally to the formation of Historic Pools of Britain,” he said. “Gill quite rightly believed this was not solely about swimming but preserving our heritage and finding innovative ways to involve the wider community.”
In his last media interview before his sudden death in November, Mike paid tribute to Gill’s contribution. “She became the ‘go to’ person for anyone who needed help and advice. From the start her aim was to create a collective voice for pools of significance, which we can see is making a real difference.”
Joe Stanhope, operations director of Jubilee Park Woodhall Spa, reinforces this point and says membership has brought tangible benefits, not least by providing a letter of support which helped secure £300,000 of funding towards the refurbishment of its facilities. “Subsequently these improvements enabled us to double the number of visitors,” he added. Networking at HPB events is invaluable and led Joe to Pollett Pool Group, which supports HPB.
“Since starting to use their products and plant room equipment in 2016 this relationship has saved us around £50,000.” Another example comes from David Dawson, secretary and a trustee of Save Grange Lido in Cumbria: “We had considerable assistance from HPB in drawing-up our business plan, particularly with regard to likely visitor numbers and preparing a proposed timetable for use of the pool, breaking it down into general opening, school lessons and swim clubs,” he said.
One of only four remaining seaside lidos in the country, pool trustees are working closely with South Lakeland District Council to bring about a full restoration of the site. The aim is to transform the Thirties lido, closed since 1993, into a community-owned leisure facility with a 50m swimming pool at its heart. Phase I is soon to start, thanks to £4.3 million council funding to improve and strengthen the sea defences, terracing and central pavilion.
This major investment reflects the economic potential of the Grange project, creating an attractive sustainable regional tourist destination. “Grange Lido is more than a pool without a roof,” said David. “This is an important heritage site and community asset which will transform the whole area.” Fundraising is ongoing, and approval is now being sought to restore the pool basin and refurbish and extend the existing buildings to provide multi-use community facilities.
Specialist expertise for this phase comes from architect Chris Romer-Lee, director of award-winning practice Studio Octopi, noted not only for its exceptional construction detailing but also for its use of crowdfunding to instigate new community-led projects. Chris is currently grappling with the intricacies of obtaining the necessary planning consents, a challenge often faced by other listed pools. “It can be tricky navigating the process with some authorities; working with community groups means being more nimble, prepared to battle on their behalf, to open people’s eyes to the possibilities.”
He has a special interest in access to water. He told us: “I am fascinated by the design of these historic spaces and what we can learn from them. Historic pools such as Grange Lido were often simpler and more courageous… less fluff, more joy.” Chris has several other projects on the go including the historic Tarlair Pool in Banff, Aberdeenshire. Opened as a triple-tidal pool in 1932, its spectacular location at the base of a sea cliff has earned it the highest-possible Category A ranking from Heritage Scotland.
Still largely intact, although in a state of decay since its closure, an extensive restoration project is underway to reinvent the Art Deco pavilion and reunite it with the landscape, to serve as a community hub with facilities also for walkers and beachgoers. Community access and public support are vital factors in enabling historic pools to survive and thrive…. Bramley Baths in Leeds is a prominent example of a community-run enterprise managed with a strong business focus that has seen it go from strength to strength since it was acquired from the council in 2013. Opened in 1904 it retains many of its Edwardian features and is proud of its long heritage.
Chief executive officer David Wilford, who came to Bramley in 2020 after a career as a management consultant, attributes their ongoing success to ‘listening and responding’ to user feedback. “We’ve been described as the friendliest pool in England, and we are often asked for advice by other pools,” he said. “We are loved by the community, and I feel we are an exemplar of a successful social enterprise.” The council obviously agrees as it extended its original 25- year peppercorn rent to 50 years.
Bramley is one of hundreds of pools built across the country following the Baths and Wash-Houses Act of 1846. The boom in late 19th and early 20th century municipally owned pools was more to do with public health and hygiene rather than swimming for pleasure. The government of the day wanted to improve public health at a time when diseases such as cholera were rife, families living cheek-by-jowl in poor conditions.
The Act set out a requirement for public washing facilities to be made available and while many were simple and functional, others were constructed by wealthy merchants and philanthropists who used the very best materials and state-of-the art design and engineering techniques to create a long-lasting memorial. Victoria Baths in Manchester is a magnificent example… among its very finest features are more than 100 stained glass windows and panels, which can cost up to £20,000 each to restore.
As with all HPB member pools, this ongoing multi-million-pound project to preserve the building is underpinned by a strong community-engagement programme and a diverse offering of recreational and cultural events. Community support is also evident at newly restored Cleveland Pools, opened in late summer to national acclaim after a near 20- year campaign of fundraising and construction. Cleveland Pools Trust was formed to save the 200-year-old site when it was put up for sale by the council after being used as trout farm.
The last remaining Georgian lido, it was built partly with public subscription for the ‘gentlemen of Bath’ after nude bathing was banned in the River Avon. It enjoys a secluded location and future plans include the construction of a pontoon to enable river access. PR officer Nicky Robinson, one of a team of 125 volunteers who run the site, said it was difficult to describe the excitement that greeted the opening in August. “It was absolutely thrilling,” she said. “As the oldest lido in the UK we are rightly proud of its birth-right and thankful to residents and professionals who have supported this heritage project in so many ways,” she said.
It also holds a Blue Plaque from Peterborough Civic Society, recognising its position as one of a handful of ‘reasonably unspoiled’ heritage buildings in the city. Built in a classic hacienda style, it was the result of a collaboration between five architects who gave their services free of charge to support the community as swimming for leisure became more popular. It survived a direct hit from a wartime Luftwaffe bomb in 1940, and later a fire which brought a generous donation from the then leader of the council to repair the damage.
Visitors admire the unique weathervane on top of the square clock tower depicting the late Walter Cornelius, a former lifeguard renowned for his eccentric charity stunts. Painted in gold, it shows him in a pair of home-made wings when he attempted to fly over the River Nene. Janet Martin, chairman of Friends of Peterborough Lido, believes it is ‘one of the finest Art Deco pools in the country’ although some external decorative features have been lost due to vandalism.
“We are incredibly lucky to have this pool as many closed in the Eighties and Nineties when indoor swimming became more popular,” she said. Historic pools of all kinds clearly have a big part to play not only in the lives of those who love and use them, but in retaining the very best examples of civic architecture from the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian era through to the Modern Movement, and even post-1945.
The late Mike Kirkman, friend and colleague of HPB founder Gill Wright, told us: “This is not nostalgia for a bygone age. Historic Pools of Britain shares experiences, knowledge, and advice with pools at various stages of development to make them fit for the 21st century so future generations can continue to enjoy them.”
Historic Pools of Britain: www.historicpools.org.uk