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Death of the swimming pool – is it the end of another great British institution?
Almost 2,000 public pools could be lost within a decade. Meet the locals trying to save them

Joe Shute,
1 January 2022 • 5:00am
Death of the swimming pool – is this the end of another great British institution?
Turquoise water and the odd discarded plaster… Nothing evokes a British childhood like the local baths, but they are being demolished at an alarming rate CREDIT: Ashley J Bourne
Jerry Hatcher measures out his life in the lanes of Bristol’s Jubilee Pool. Like many others in the Knowle area of the city, he learnt to swim here while at primary school. He can still recall collecting empty beer bottles from the street to trade in at the local deposit return to raise the 8d entry fee.

Today the pool, which was designed in 1935 in honour of King George V’s Silver Jubilee and opened two years later, remains as much a part of his life.

When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer eight years ago, he swam here throughout his recovery. ‘I thought I was dead when I got the diagnosis,’ he admits. ‘For me, the pool was somewhere to come and forget.’

Hatcher, 65, a retired motorcycle salesman, now comes here on weekends with his 11-year-old grandson – it is where he taught him to swim. ‘We come every Saturday and he can now swim 25 to 30 lengths,’ Hatcher beams.

At 22 metres long (it was built to the imperial measurement of 25 yards) with tiled bottle-green walls and a vaulted roof, supported by exposed steel girders, Jubilee Pool is steeped in such stories. For generations it has been a focal point of the community, but in a matter of months, it may close for good.

Under Bristol City Council’s proposed ‘leisure investment strategy’, funding will be withdrawn for Jubilee Pool and another local leisure centre in March, when the contracts with the private providers that currently run both facilities expire.

It is the third attempt in 15 years by the local authority, currently Labour-run, to permanently close the pool, citing a repairs backlog and high running costs. Campaigners fear Jubilee Pool will follow the same fate as its sister pool, Speedwell Swimming Baths, which was demolished in 2019 and redeveloped into flats.

Jerry Hatcher, who has been swimming at Jubilee Pool since he was a child and now brings his grandson
Jerry Hatcher has been swimming at Jubilee Pool since he was a child and now brings his grandson CREDIT: Ashley J Bourne
The decline of our municipal swimming pools is a story being replicated across the country. Almost 2,000 could be lost within a decade without urgent action, according to national governing body Swim England.

At the current rate of closures, the number of indoor public pools in England will fall by 40 per cent from 4,336 to around 2,468.

Last year, Swindon’s Oasis Leisure Centre, which has recently been Grade-II listed for its unique ’70s domed roof, was closed and threatened with demolition as part of a redevelopment of the site.

In Cornwall, campaigners are currently calling on the council to save three at-risk leisure centres and a hydrotherapy pool in St Austell. The costs associated with historic pools make them especially vulnerable.

Indeed, saving them comes at a price. Swim England’s report, published in September, found that Government and local authorities need to invest £1 billion to refurbish these ageing facilities – and fast.

The impact of successive lockdowns has played a part – with revenues drying up and some swimmers remaining reluctant to return – but there are wider issues at play.

Many of Britain’s pools were built more than half a century ago and cash-strapped local authorities are increasingly unwilling to invest in the ageing buildings.

Meanwhile, gleaming private gyms and newly built swimming pools with ultra-modern facilities are luring customers away. The recent trend for wild swimming also means local pools have fallen further out of fashion.

During last summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games, Team GB won eight medals in swimming (including four golds), the largest haul from any Olympics. The proposed closure of so many pools is feared to be putting that sporting legacy at risk.

‘The figures are very alarming,’ says Alistair Brownlee, the two-time Olympic gold-medal-winning triathlete. ‘Especially considering how expensive it is to build new pools. It seems like a massive shame to be closing them down.’

Jubilee Pool in Bristol, which opened in 1937; Bramley Baths in Leeds dates back to 1904
Jubilee Pool in Bristol, which opened in 1937; Bramley Baths in Leeds dates back to 1904 CREDIT: Ashley J Bourne
In 2014, Brownlee and his brother Jonny, a fellow Olympian, started the Brownlee Foundation, which has encouraged tens of thousands of children from all backgrounds into exercise, including swimming.

The ability to swim and access to a pool should, Brownlee argues, be a basic right afforded to every young person in the country, but already many aren’t being given that chance.

‘I’ve been to events with 10- and 11-year-olds where loads of kids can swim fantastically,’ he says. ‘But some others I don’t think have ever seen a swimming pool. The difference between them is stark and really sad.’

Even if you have never dipped so much as a toe in Jubilee Pool, you will already know the rippled turquoise water and the chlorinated fug. Standing poolside evokes childhood memories of Puffin certificates, diving for rubber bricks, birthday parties, verruca socks and floating plasters.

Author Libby Page, whose bestselling novel, The Lido, centres around a fight to save a local pool from closure, recently rediscovered the joy of swimming baths for herself, after visiting her local pool in Frome, Somerset. ‘As soon as I walked in I loved the fact that immediately I was back to being a teenager again,’ she says.

‘The wooden-clad ceiling, the smell, the vending machines for after-swimming snacks… I loved all that because it is such a part of our memories and culture.’

As well as bringing her baby son to swim, the pool also offers a means of escape. ‘In a pool, as soon as you get into your costume nobody can tell who you are,’ she says. ‘It’s quite liberating. You can’t have your phone, can’t be tuned into the news, you shed so many layers of outside life.’

Colleen Paul, a regular at Jubilee Pool, relies on the calm waters for exercise
Colleen Paul, a regular at Jubilee Pool CREDIT: Ashley J Bourne
The tradition of going to public swimming baths dates back centuries. Roman baths provided the model for the bath houses that emerged in Britain from the 17th century onwards. As our cities expanded during the Industrial Revolution, local pools were considered vital for public health, to provide sanitation and curtail epidemics such as cholera.

In the early 20th century, it was decided that every home in the city of Bristol should be within one mile of a swimming facility. And so between 1922 and 1937, six pools, including Jubilee Pool, were built by the Bristol City Corporation.

Today, all those pools have been demolished, with the exception of Jubilee Pool and the Grade II-listed Bristol South Baths. Its architect, CFW Dening, who helped create a number of Bristol’s new garden suburbs, also designed Jubilee and so campaigners have applied to get it the same listed status; however their attempts have been rebuffed.

Jules Laming, chair of Friends of Jubilee Pool, explains they are now launching another rather more audacious bid: to take control of the pool from the council and run it as a not-for-profit community enterprise.

Next week, they plan to lodge a formal expression of interest with the council to take on the building on a 35-year lease and begin addressing the backlog of repairs, which are estimated to cost more than £300,000. If the bid is accepted, they have until the end of March to submit a detailed business plan – otherwise the pool will close.

‘A combination of Covid and not being able to exercise or socialise for two years, plus the injustice of closing the pool, has galvanised the community to come together and try to save it,’ Laming says.

Since the campaign launched, membership has nearly doubled, from 320 to 620 people (each pays a monthly subscription of around £20). At present, she says, around 2,400 people are using the pool every month.

Laming, 50, works full-time for a planning consultancy, and says her two children, who are 12 and nine, have been swimming here since they were infants. However, she insists that Jubilee Pool is much more than a play pool for children or a place to simply keep fit.

The unusually high water temperature of 30C makes it ideal for people with certain medical conditions. Patients from a nearby NHS pain clinic are referred here to swim in the warm water to help soothe their symptoms, and a session is held each Friday for disabled adults, who otherwise would have nowhere nearby to swim.

A lifeguard on duty at Bramley Baths, which was closed for four months during the third national lockdown
A lifeguard on duty at Bramley Baths CREDIT: Ashley J Bourne
Debbie Reid, 51, was diagnosed with hereditary osteoarthritis at the age of 30, and in 2017 she had two hip replacements. The pool has been vital in her rehabilitation. ‘Being in the water is lovely and warm and relaxes the joints,’ she explains. ‘Otherwise it hurts to move.’

Other local residents share similar stories of how the pool has been a lifeline. Jane Houben, 56, brings her 24-year-old son Noah swimming every Friday. He was born with severe learning difficulties and struggles to walk, but from a young age, he was ‘obsessed’ with water. ‘He loves it,’ says Houben, who also swims here alone.

‘If the pool goes, that’s a whole part of my well-being gone,’ she says, ‘and for Noah, the word that comes to mind is heartbroken. He manages his fitness and well-being in the water; it is also a social time for him. He is already having panic attacks about travelling to larger venues – I can’t see him managing that.’

The council has suggested if Jubilee Pool closes, swimmers could use nearby Hengrove Pool, which is three miles away. The £35 million sports centre, which opened in 2012, boasts an Olympic-sized swimming pool, but the Friends of Jubilee Pool campaign has raised concerns over the modern ‘mixed’ changing rooms.

Staff at Hengrove Pool say there are some separate changing facilities alongside the mixed ones, but according to the Friends of Jubilee Pool, some of their swimmers feel far more comfortable and safe in changing rooms they are familiar with.

One swimmer says that she has been sexually assaulted in the past; going swimming helps her deal with her trauma. Closing a pool with only single-sex changing rooms would, she admits, have a significant impact on her.

‘Myself and other women have discussed the pool as a safe haven for trauma survivors,’ she says. ‘Closing Jubilee Pool comes with the understanding that you are closing one of the few places local women have that offers a safe space for them.’

Another option is Clevedon Marine Lake, a tidal pool fed by the Bristol Channel. Jerry Hatcher took his grandson there in lockdown, and Noah visited a few times with his carer, but the cold salt water and distances involved proved too much for both of them.

‘If the pool shuts it will probably be the end of my swimming career,’ says Hatcher. ‘As a regular form of exercise it won’t happen for me, and it probably won’t happen for my grandson either.’

Bramley Baths was feared at risk of closure in 2011, until local residents set up a campaign to save it
Bramley Baths was at risk of closure until local residents set up a campaign to save it CREDIT: Ashley J Bourne
But Libby Page is hopeful that the spate of other pool closures may help spark a renewed appreciation for those, like Jubilee Pool, that are at risk. ‘I think sometimes it takes the threat of losing somewhere we take for granted to realise what that means.’

A looming closure can stir a community into action. Around the country there are several at-risk pools that have been saved at the 11th hour by swimmers and residents coming together.

On 12 April, 2021, Michelle Gilligan arrived at Bramley Baths in Leeds shortly after dawn and slipped into the water for her first swim after a long winter. That morning marked the reopening of the pool after being closed for four months during the third national lockdown.

Under new social-distancing rules, Gilligan had to forgo a shower and was instructed not to stop at the end of any lanes, but still, she swam for 45 minutes. ‘It was heaven,’ she recalls.

Gilligan, 52, had spent months struggling to cope with family trauma. The previous October, her 16-year-old son Josh had returned from school with a sore head that turned out to be Covid-19. Within a fortnight Gilligan, her husband David and seven of their nine children (aged between 13 and 33) had all contracted the virus.

David, 57, a retail manager who had retired due to numerous health problems, was severely affected by Covid. On the day he was admitted to hospital, a doctor telephoned Gilligan, who was seriously ill herself, with bad news.

‘He told me my husband was critical, his kidneys weren’t working, and they were trying to get him to a high-dependency unit. When I was talking on the phone, it felt as though I was sat in the front garden watching myself on the phone,’ she recalls. ‘It was horrendous.’

He pulled through and three weeks later returned home: he’d lost over a stone in weight, had a two-week memory blank and was left bedridden for weeks.

Meanwhile, Gilligan homeschooled five of the children, nursed him and battled depression and anxiety. When Bramley Baths reopened, she swam six times a week. ‘This place is my get-out-of-jail-free card,’ she says. ‘My sanctuary.’

Swimmers at Bramley – the pool’s annual turnover has now grown to £800,000
Swimmers at Bramley – the pool’s annual turnover has now grown to £800,000 CREDIT: Ashley J Bourne
But like Jubilee Pool, Bramley Baths was, for a period, on the brink of closure. In 2011 Leeds City Council reduced its opening hours from 90 to 48 a week in a cost-cutting exercise. It was feared the baths might close for good until a group of local residents formed the Friends of Bramley Baths and took over the running of the pool.

David Wilford, 59, chief executive of the group, explains that they were initially given the lease on a two-year basis – he believes the council assumed they were doomed to fail – but the lease has since been extended to 2067 and the pool is now flourishing.

They have been awarded major grants to refurbish the Grade II-listed building – which opened in 1904 and remains the only Edwardian bath house in Leeds – and the annual turnover has grown to £800,000. This financial year it is hoped that the pool will turn a profit, which will be invested in the building and local community.

The Friends of Bramley Baths is now registered as a charitable trust and a community benefit society (a similar model to a building society). It has 20 full-time employees and 14 casual members of staff. Residents with a connection to the pool also lend their expertise to help keep it afloat.

Among them is Nick Quin, 35, chair of the board of trustees. He started swimming here at the age of six and remembers a host of family birthdays when the pool was hired out. At one pool party, he delightedly recalls, his uncle was barred after bombing into the water and his shorts falling off.

Quin’s mother learnt to swim here and his grandmother, too. She also visited the pool during the Second World War when its glass ceiling was blacked out and the water covered over to host Saturday-night dances.

Through lockdown, he says, about 160 residents signed up to a membership scheme, paying around £10 a month to help the pool survive. Last April, a local woman made a donation of £10,000 towards adult swimming classes for people in the area.

For Michelle Gilligan, Bramley Baths is a sanctuary after a family battle with Covid
For Michelle Gilligan, Bramley Baths is a sanctuary after a family battle with Covid CREDIT: Ashley J Bourne
The morning I visit, instructor Geraldine Flynn is enthusiastically leading an aqua-exercise class, leaping about on the pool’s edge as the music echoes about the old tiles. Flynn, who is 62, reckons the average age of the class is pushing 70. ‘Without this pool where would they all go?’ she asks.

She has taught at the pool for 30 years and regards her work as a vocation, one she adores. ‘The amount of people I have taught to swim over the years is phenomenal,’ she says. ‘And it’s so rewarding. It’s a life skill. Especially for kids.’

She is regularly approached when out and about by people she taught as babies and teenagers, whose faces she has long forgotten. But they never forget her and always make a point of coming over and saying hello.

‘They tell me, “I come from Bramley,”’ she smiles. ‘“And you taught me to swim.”’ This community connection, she insists, is what makes swimming pools up and down the country worth saving. ‘We are like a family,’ she says. ‘People make friendships here and form bonds that last for life.’

Delight and despair as pools to reopen but adults face club training wait 22/02/2021

Lessons will recommence in Englefield Green (Egham) for the Summer term - from 15th April on Thursdays 9am-5pm, Fridays 1-9pm and Saturdays 1-9pm. Almost sold out, book now to avoid disappointment

Delight and despair as pools to reopen but adults face club training wait Swim England chief executive Jane Nickerson was left with ‘mixed feelings’ after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the reopening of swimming pools.

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