Saskia Murphy recalls her last splash

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On our daily walks, my dog and I pass the shell of an old swimming baths – a building that was once a thriving social hub in our community. My pooch, a scent hound who adores anything that pongs, pulls on her lead in an attempt to get a good sniff of the litter that lines the grass patches at the foot of the old stone steps, while the boarded-up windows hide the abandonment inside.

Since the old baths was closed in 2016 due to funding cuts, the building, erected in the early 1920s, has been left derelict. Every now and then a resident posts in our local community Facebook group asking about plans for development, but as the years tick by, the weeds growing out of the cracks in the windows get taller. The litter piles up.

There are similar scenes across the country. Figures published last year showed that over 160 public swimming pools, or 6 per cent of the UK total, had closed since 2010 – and that was before the pandemic wreaked its own havoc on leisure centres.

Last week Swim England warned 2,000 swimming pools could be lost forever by the end of the decade unless the government and local authorities act now to replace or refurbish ageing facilities.

The governing body’s new report, A Decade of Decline: The Future of Swimming Pools in England, warns there will be a huge reduction in the amount
of water space available by 2030, potentially leaving millions shut out of swimming and water sports.

The looming shortage is based on pools that were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s and are coming to the end of their lifespan – while not enough new facilities are being built to replace them.

The report highlights that almost a quarter of local authorities in England have a deficit of at least one average-sized swimming pool.

And of course some areas are worse off than others. There are 118 public pools across Yorkshire and Humber, the equivalent of 867 square metres per 100,000 people in the region. By comparison, the South East has 1,048 square metres per 100,000 people, while the South West has 1,068.

In London the swimming culture is arguably worlds away from anywhere else in the country. In the capital there are dozens of outdoor pools, ponds and lakes, easily accessible via public transport, and with a lively social scene attached to them, where women meet for lunch after a refreshing dip in well-maintained ladies’ ponds.

A few weeks ago, I decided to go for a swim in a public baths near my home in south Manchester. I arrived at 6pm, just in time for the adult swim session, along with around 40 other people who’d obviously had the same idea as me.

We all crammed into the small pool, attempting to swim around and past each other in circular lengths. The thrashing and crashing of too many bodies in such a small space made the water choppy and difficult to swim in – it was far from relaxing. I got out of the pool after 20 minutes and haven’t been back since.

Wouldn’t it be nice if us northerners enjoyed the same standard of facilities as our friends down south?

Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy

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