My friend Catriona has started a local history society (www.manchesterlocalhistory.blogspot.com) at Manchester University. I have written a guide to interesting places to go swimming for a zine she is producing for the society:
There are few types of exercise more pleasurable, relaxing and energising than swimming. Forget the modern Aquatics Centre, though: Manchester has historic swimming pools which can help you explore the stories of the city at the same time as getting fit. Some date back to times when the provision of public baths was not just for leisure, but part of a wider effort to improve public cleanliness and hygiene, and some are in buildings that are symbolic and influential to the city’s history.
Local authorities across the country started to provide public pools and laundries for their citizens after the Public Baths and Wash Houses Act of 1846. Even into the twentieth century, many people had no water in their houses, let alone an inside bathroom. In Manchester, a number of public swimming baths and wash houses were built in densely populated residential areas by the city’s Baths and Wash Houses Committee to give people the chance to wash their clothes, have baths in privacy and enjoy the comfort of hot water. Although many are long demolished, a handful survive, some of which still function as swimming pools.
The most famous and celebrated swimming baths is Manchester’s splendid water palace Victoria Baths, which opened in 1906. Unfortunately, it ceased to open as a swimming baths in 1993 and the water was drained from the pools.
This guide covers, firstly, historic public swimming baths in which it is still possible to swim and, secondly, a couple of opportunities to swim in some of Manchester’s most luxurious historic buildings.
Levenshulme Swimming Pools, Barlow Road, Levenshulme
Levenshulme Public Baths and Washhouse opened 1921. An early claim to fame is that, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Sunny Lowry from nearby Longsight used it to train to swim the channel, becoming the first British woman to do so in 1933.
Nowadays everyone enters through the same old-fashioned gates and wooden doors, but the exterior of the building still displays signs of the social hierarchy of the time, with lettering saying ‘Men’ and ‘Women’ marking where there would once have been separate entrances for the sexes. Inside, the segregation would have continued: Levenshulme Baths has two pools, one large pool which would have been reserved for men and a smaller pool for women.
Although it’s unprepossessing from the outside, inside the building’s most striking feature is a beautiful black and white chequered tiled floor in the entrance and hallways. The dramatic effect is heightened by walls tiled in white, cream, black and grey with various combinations of decorative stripes, bands, crosses and geometric patterns. Like Victoria Baths, Chorlton Baths and Withington Baths, the pools are lined with glazed brick — white with grass green bands — that glistens rainbow colours when it catches the light. Lines of cubicles face each other across the pools under a curved ceiling.
The local community has fought threats of closure to keep Levenshulme Baths open, and it has recently undergone refurbishment — although a few years ago it attracted some controversy when it started offering naked bathing sessions for gay men.
Withington Leisure Centre, Burton Road, Withington
Withington Baths is a bit like Victoria Baths on a smaller scale, and the most ornamental of the historic pools which remain open in Manchester. Simple floral motifs adorn the brickwork outside and stained glass inside, shields and drapes pattern the tiles on the staircase, the entrance hall is paved in black and white checks and the council’s coat of arms is recreated in coloured glass above the wooden entrance doors. Light floods into the pool through a glass roof supported by a sloping wooden ceiling.
Withington Baths, which was built in 1911, was designed by Manchester’s first city architect Henry Price. As well as Victoria Baths and the also impressive but now sadly defunct Harpurhey Baths in north Manchester (which are in the process of finding a new, non-watery use as part of Manchester College), Price designed a number of other significant buildings around the city, including the pump house hydraulic power station that provided water to mills, warehouses, the town hall clock and opera house in central Manchester (the building is now part of the People’s History Museum in Spinningfields) and Withington and Didsbury Libraries.
In 1914, Withington Baths became the first baths in Manchester to allow mixed bathing, and it also made no distinction between social classes — often, pools also separated ‘first class males’ from ‘second class males’. Nowadays, the facilities have been expanded to include a gym, and there’s also a sauna just off the side of the pool. Customers have the choice of using either modern changing complexes or old-fashioned style cubicles lining the side of the pool.
Chorlton Leisure Centre, Manchester Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy
Another Henry Price building, from 1929, which still featured separate entrances for men and women .
Although it has cubicles lining the pool side, Chorlton Baths is largely uninteresting on the inside, with a low flat ceiling and little in the way of decoration. The most interesting thing to see is a plaque erected a the time of opening by Manchester’s Baths and Washhouses Committee which lists the councillors present, including a Mr W Onions.
Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Peter Street, Manchester city centre
There are few places more important to Manchester’s history than the site occupied by the 5 star Radisson Edwardian Hotel. The modern, luxurious hotel (which is so comfortable Sven Goran Eriksson made it his home during his time as Manchester City’s manager) stands behind the facade of the Free Trade hall, probably the most famous building in Manchester. The Free Trade Hall, which has actually been built and rebuilt a few times, was erected close to the site of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, a protest for democratic reform which turned nasty when mounted soldiers charged the crowd. The building has gone on to host events important to the city’s political and cultural history, from anti corn law meetings in the 1830s and '40s to the Halle orchestra’s first concert in 1858.
If Victoria Baths was the height of luxury in Edwardian swimming baths, then Sienna Spa, in the basement of the hotel, is the ultimate in swimming luxury today. Whereas Victoria Baths’ opulence is created by an ornate décor of tiles and stained glass, the Radisson hotel’s understated black and cream colour scheme is sleek, smooth and minimalist. The small pool glows electric blue, lit from beneath the water.
Swim laps, float on your back, bubble in the Jacuzzi or sit in the sauna and steam room whilst contemplating that, a few floors above, Christabel Pankhust and Annie Kenney raised the question of votes for women in 1905, Dylan dared go electric in 1966 and was heckled with ‘Judas’, and various Manchester music luminaries saw the Sex Pistols play an influential gig in the Lesser Free Trade Hall.
Midland Hotel, Peter Street, Manchester city centre
Just down the road from the Free Trade Hall is another luxury hotel with a health club in the basement.
The huge, redbrick and terracotta Midland Hotel is significant to Manchester’s history as it was built in 1903 by the Midland Railway company next to the Manchester Central train station and used by American cotton traders visiting Manchester on business. In 1906, Mr Rolls met Mr Royce at the hotel, leading to the foundation of the famous car company, and Adolf Hitler apparently once considered it as a potential venue for Nazi headquarters in Britain. Along with the Radisson, it’s taken over by politicians every two years for the Labour Party conference.
The pool is smaller and shabbier than the Radisson’s but overlooks the gym so, whilst you watch gym goers getting hot and sweaty on a treadmill, you can feel thankful that you are splashing around in warm water — a vastly superior form of exercise!
For opening hours and swim times visit:
www.manchestersportandleisure.org/activities/swimming (Levenshulme, Withington and Chorlton)
www.siennaspa.co.uk (Radisson Edwardian Hotel)
www.qhotels.co.uk/hotels/the-midland-manchester/leisure.aspx (Midland Hotel)