At the start of the year I made a map of pools under threat on my blog – not a comprehensive list; just the pools I knew about. I included some that had been successfully saved. I thought it was essential to make the point that campaigns can work and people can change things. Until a plan is executed, it's just a plan. Part of the reason for the map was to show campaigners they are not alone, and maybe to encourage some sharing of ideas and good practice. I called it the Optimists' Swim Tour, because if you're embarking on a project that involves challenging local government then you need all the positive help you can get.
Shoalstone pool, Brixham. King's Meadow lido, Reading. Cleveland pools, Bath. Moseley Road baths, Birmingham. For every one I can name off the top of my head, there are five more being fought for. You don't have to think about it for long before you start slamming your fist on the table yelling ARE THEY GOING TO WAIT TILL WE ALL DROWN BEFORE THEY DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT?
So I was pleased to hear of the launch of the volunteer-run Historic Pools Network. Membership is open to pools across Britain, with a main focus on pre-1939 establishments. Being under one umbrella means a pooling (sorry) of energy and resources; it's less lonely and has potentially more impact. Their main aims, as set out in their terms of reference, are "protecting, restoring and operating historic pools … preserving architectural features, promoting and managing older pools, bidding for and securing grant-aid and effective partnership working". It's in its infancy – there's no website – but does have a dedicated email address at email@example.com if you want to get involved.
The Historic Pools Network also wants to raise public awareness about the problems ahead, and I'd add that these are not just individual problems for individual pools, but have wider connotations. We're in the process of losing some key parts of our architectural and social heritage: Victorian and Edwardian Baths that tell us a lot about our past. I'd love to have lived in the Victorian era, though perhaps not as a woman. Maybe I mean "I'd love to have been an eminent Victorian man". They travelled abroad collecting shrubs, planted trees everywhere in London to emulate Paris, and built. A lot. That they found a way to create all these baths (and libraries and town halls), often through rich philanthropists who wanted to do things for "the good of the community", shames us. We've swapped rich philanthropists for The Secret Millionaire.
We're now facing the long-term challenges of maintaining these places because, however well-constructed they are, buildings full of water (and its associated chemicals) need constant upkeep. Without an ongoing drip-feed of repair, buildings can tip into dramatic decline. Even if you don't buy into our current cuts position, which I don't, it remains true that lots of councils are cash-strapped like never before at a time when old building stock requires more attention than ever before; a cruel synergy.
Pools have a terrific and elemental hold over people, and not just the beauties; the great hulking brutes engender the same feeling. Specific loyalty broadens out into a general concern – I'm never going to regularly swim in Moseley Road baths or Manchester's Victoria baths, but I want them to survive for reasons beyond "that's a shame". And guess what – I can multi-care. I don't care more about pools than libraries; I care about both. Shutting libraries seemed to be a very particular and vicious attack on the value of arts and culture. I also think that we should campaign to keep the buildings and their purpose. Preserving a library building, for instance, is all well and good on architectural terms. Preserving the "library" part itself seems to be as integral. If you keep the building but close the pool, forgetting what it's for, that goes in my "loss" column.
Campaigning to save pools while food banks are on the rise? Ridiculous. Or is it? Trying to save some treasured architecture is for times of plenty. Or is it? No, it's not. Once you've been fed, is a library not essential? Once you are housed, is the opportunity to swim such a rarefied need? Look at what we lose, if we lose our baths. It's not just about beauty, because not all of them are beautiful. Part of the answer is intangible: if I say "we lose a connection with our past selves", I'm aware that it's hard to grasp that sentence, to give it concrete meaning, even though I can feel it. Preserving our history connects us to it.
They don't just speak to our past though; it's not just swimmers who lose if pools are shut – everyone does. We lose the sense of what our communities should look like now. Community should have public space, for everyone, across the generations – I think the official jargon is "diverse" and "inclusive". If they take these places away – then what? Public pools are a vital part of successful communal identity; important to our wellbeing in a wider sense than simply encouraging physical activity. Oh and yeah – our children should swim.
Don't let's be fobbed off with "but you can go to the Virgin gym up the road, that's got a pool". Sure, a few people can scurry off to private pools, but if you think they fill the gap and are a suitable replacement for public provision, you and I are not going to get on.
It may be that you want to do something. It may be that you have ideas, some skills, or can forward petitions. The successes, the pools that have been saved, have been down to individuals putting the hours in. We owe those individuals a debt of thanks. If you have any energy left, maybe it's your turn to step up. But whatever I do, whatever you do, I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing the Historic Pools Network great success. To be continued …