In Praise of Withington Baths

East of the M60 on the swimming baths’ proposed closure and replacement

My old swimming baths
Doomed: Withington Baths. Also the place where the creator of East of the M60 went for his swimming lessons whilst at the (now closed) Ewing School.

Whilst I attended Ewing School, I used to dread Tuesday mornings, so much so that I called that day of the week ‘Tragic Tuesday’. At 1000, each morning, a Smiths Shearings coach would ferry us to Withington Baths. We would then spend the best part of an hour there: stronger swimmers went to Pool Number 1, and not so stronger swimmers would go to Pool Number 2. I was firmly in the latter category as my coordination was substandard.

Most of the First Group class, whom I was with at the time, went to Pool 2 where Mr Bodger would conduct our lessons. Each lesson would begin with us all queueing before the last school finished (often St. Ambrose’s off Princess Road). When I joined the Middle Group on the 26 June 1989, I was still at Pool 2 whilst the rest of my peers were in Pool 1.

Then, November 1989, I was laid low with the flu and unable to continue swimming lessons. I was laid low with this till the start of December and all my other work went to pot. By 1990 (partly down to council cutbacks) the lessons stopped, and I was somewhat relieved.

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In spite of the fact I hated the swimming lessons with a passion, I loved the Edwardian ambience of Withington Baths. I found it a most charming place compared with my then previous visits to Oldham Sports Centre pool and my nearest baths (the William Andrew Swimming Pool in Dukinfield). For me, it was the tile work along the pool, its entrance hall being virtually unchanged since 1911. I found the idea of getting changed alongside the pool most quaint, compared with dedicated changing rooms at more modern baths.

The airy pitched roof and abundance of natural light made for a most conducive swimming environment. Pool No. 2 at the time still had stone steps at both shallow and deep ends, whereas Pool No. 1 had plastic steps with metal handrails. Pool No. 1 had the most investment; its showers were more modern; some of the changing cubicles were replaced by lockers. Pool No. 2 had metal foot baths, whereby you placed one foot on a pedal, and tepid water would come from the tap. The gents’ toilet near the deep end was always freezing – great in hot summers. Its terrazzo floor was akin to walking barefoot in the snow.

If Manchester City Council get their way, future generations would be denied of such pleasures detailed above. They propose to close Withington and Chorlton baths, replacing them with a new building halfway there (at Hough End). Similarly, Levenshulme, Broadway (Moston) and Miles Platting pools will see closure and replacement of a new one in Beswick.

The new facilities are all very good and proper and may be a worthy addition to Manchester City Council’s half a million or so residents. Not so worthy, as always, is the extra travelling residents at affected areas need to make. (And everybody knows how expensive Greater Manchester’s bus fares are, especially in the northern part of Manchester).

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Plus Ça Change…

A similar fate begat Victoria Baths in Chorlton-on-Medlock 20 years ago. Again, this was down to Manchester City Council’s Local Government Funding Settlement being substandard and the cost of repairs involved. Today, Victoria Baths has been saved by a Friends’ group, whose long term aim includes the reopening of its Turkish Baths and one of the pools.

Both Withington Baths and Victoria Baths were designed by Henry Price, opening in 1911 and 1906 respectively. Whereas Victoria Baths was dubbed Manchester’s Water Palace, Withington’s is a creditable Clarence House or Windsor Castle to Chorlton-on-Medlock’s allegorical Buckingham Palace. As soon as Victoria Baths closed in March 1993, a Friends of Victoria Baths group was formed. Could history repeat itself this year?

If we look across the Pennines for inspiration, could community ownership be a possible aim? Bramley residents fought against the closure of its baths by setting up a Community Interest Company. Their baths is of similar architectural importance and nature to Withington’s. Withington also has the bonus of a high student population nearby which could ensure its retention in non-profit hands.

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The Case For Withington Baths’ retention

Mention Withington and its surrounding area, you automatically think of South Manchester as being Manchester’s answer to Notting Hill. You think of its high student population and its bars and restaurants. The other part of South Manchester which people seldom think of is its working class areas. Old Moat for instance is far removed from some people’s impressions of South Manchester inside the M60 motorway. Ditto the above with Burnage, Ladybarn, parts of Chorlton. That slight increase in travelling distance for such residents could affect their finances.

Withington Baths is centrally placed for Withingtonians and easily walkable from Old Moat and West Didsbury. The proposed replacement site would be finicky to get to on public transport – at least till the Metrolink extension reaches East Didsbury.

Withingtonians have every reason to be annoyed: in the last 30 years, they have lost a Town Hall (Lapwing Lane), cinema, a well renowned special school (Ewing School), and seen their hospital downgraded. And of course, it is easy to blame the council. Blame them by all means, but remember, remember, the elephant in the room is our present company in Westminster’s hatred of local government. Especially local government north of the M25 motorway (apart from Trafford Council perhaps).

Therefore, the fight for Withington Baths’ retention is a worthy one. It is of communal and architectural importance. Though new buildings halfway between Withington and Chorlton, or Miles Platting and Levenshulme may equal savings in running costs, the burden is passed onto the user. The false economics of which would be the extra travel time, the cost to the environment by these extra journeys. Would its possible replacement be built to last 102 years? I doubt it. Will it lack the same character as Henry Price’s structure? Probably.

Your Turn:

Stand up to the closure plans by making your thoughts known in writing. Share this article on your Facebook page and join the Save Withington Baths Facebook group. Write to your MP and councillors: details about this are available on the Withington Civic Society website. Fill in the consultation document from the Manchester City Council website.

State how the proposed closure would affect your ability to keep fit at an affordable price. Think also of how this could affect the wider community and future generations. But hurry, the consultation ends on the 13 February!

References:

S.V., 03 February 2013.

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