I have one small cup for sporting prowess. I had two but I lost one. While I can’t remember where I got them or when, I know they were both for swimming. I love swimming and always have. So I didn’t need asking twice when I received an invitation to The Big Splash at Victoria Baths in Manchester.

It is a beautiful building designed by T. de Courcy Meade, Arthur Davies and supervised by Henry Price. It was opened in 1906 by the Lord Mayor of Manchester who described it as a “water palace”. It eventually fell into disrepair and was closed in 1993.

A decade later, the baths won the first series of the BBC’s Restoration programme and the struggle to reopen began. Since then, the baths have staged a variety of events including exhibitions, raves and a wonderful gin festival that I vaguely remember. It has rarely been accessible for swimming until now. As part of the Heritage Open Days scheme, the pool opened for three days in September, giving the public a chance to experience the joy that is Victoria Baths. The funds raised are going towards the cost of further restoring this Grade II listed building.

Before I set off on Saturday for my 45-minute dip, my partner regaled me with stories of her trips to the baths in the 1980s. She would cycle from Hulme every week to be bombed by kids in the deep end, later fishing out bits of plaster from her cleavage thanks to the crumbling roof. I too cycled down the length of Oxford Road to Hathersage Road, past the hospital to the baths. A refreshing dip is what my ageing knees craved.

The staff were super helpful and friendly as I awaited my slot. It was wonderful to change in the old fashioned cubicles poolside with a curtain and a half door to hide your modesty. I did a couple of lengths in the lanes reserved for budding Spitzs before joining the fun section for some well needed aqua aerobics. It is a beautiful pool and one that needs to be open permanently. Having said that, in the current economic and political dip we are drowning not waving so it seems unlikely.

Out of the water and changed, I headed to The Hip Hop Chip Shop for a tasty portion of fish, chips and mushy peas smothered in lashings of salt and vinegar. My only gripe was that the bar was closed, but then I remembered that water and alcohol don’t mix, apart from that thing with the water and the wine. It was a family day out after all and there was a pub on my way home.

I had a great time and it got me out of the house. There was no football that weekend and, as the rest of the country turned itself into a mausoleum, I’m glad that The Big Splash survived the culling of public events.

Some years ago, I used to go to the baths in Chorlton. It was small but full of charm. It too fell victim to the whims of public spending in the age of austerity. Its passing really upset me but there was no outcry or queues to mark its demise. Using Victoria Baths as a template, maybe there are some civic-minded Chorlton residents ready to lobby Manchester City Council to restore and reopen it. Andy already has my vote, but for this I would be eternally grateful.

Words and images by Robert Hamilton


For more information about Victoria Baths, click here.