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Turn of the Tide: the 'Decline' of Public Baths

Reader, I have a confession. This is not the article I pitched to my editor this week. When we commissioned this illustration, I was going to write about the architecture of swimming pools, the demise of craftsmanship in public spaces, and government cuts killing these beautiful spaces up and down the country. The more people I talked to, however, the shallower my art historical approach appeared.

British swimming clubs date back to the 1830s. We have a rich history of outdoor pools, from enormous art deco lidos (like the one at Stonehaven) to the modest tidal pools that dot the Fife coastline. However, since the 1980s, most have fallen into disrepair or been replaced by sickly, characterless ‘leisure centres’.

Recently, indoor pools have been closing at pace too. Speaking to Fife residents online, a recurrent theme was frustration at the closing of school swimming pools, once considered a valuable community resource. One local swimmer, Euan O’Brien told me: “every person who grew up in the East Neuk between 1970 and 2015 learned to swim in the Waid Academy pool.” Yet today the old Waid Academy in Anstruther lies eerily abandoned, replaced by a new ‘community campus’ on the outskirts — one without a swimming pool, forcing locals to drive out of town to teach their kids to swim.

The same thing happened when Madras College moved to its new site. This year, university contractors demolished the old Madras pool. St Andrews is unusual among world class universities for having no swimming facilities. St Andrews resident, Hilary Craig bemoans the East Sands Leisure Centre as “woefully inadequate” and agreed with fellow local Emma Morley in wishing “that the University of St Andrews would build a decent, competition-sized pool and share it with the community like many other universities across the country do.”

However, out of my research came much more hopeful findings too. Indoor swimming pools have been in decline recently, but the wild and tidal pool swimming movement was energised by the COVID lockdown. While public pools were forced to close, outdoor swimming still counted as part of the daily allowed exercise quota.

Ms Craig told me: “I moved up to St Andrews just before covid lockdowns and I can honestly say that being able to swim in the sea every day during that strange time helped me keep my sanity, not least because I met so many like-minded people doing the same.

One like-minded swimmer I interviewed was Sam Fergurson, Assistant Chaplain of the University and proud member of the Cellardyke ‘Wild Skins’ (so named for their refusal to wear wetsuits, even in the depths of winter). When she first went to the Cellardyke tidal pool, she asked a regular for guidance.

“I said ‘ooh, that’s a nice tattoo’ – she had a tattoo of a lion’s mane jellyfish. She said ‘yeah, I came swam here once, got stung by a lion’s mane. And then got a tattoo of it.’ And I thought ‘I’ve found my people!’... This is my church”.

Wild swimming is like a church, a community. The group talk, swim, and share tea together afterwards. They deal with some pretty deep topics, offering one another support through the darkest of times. For some the cold therapy offers a rare reprieve from painful health conditions. The ‘Wild Skins’ also organise charity swims (or ‘dooks’). Ms Fergusonexcitedly showed me her phone lockscreen — a gorgeous shot of the candlelit pool for last Sunday’s suicide awareness swim. Like an infinity pool, it seems hard to tell where the pool ends and the sea begins.

For Ms Ferguson, that connection to nature is part of the appeal: “every single swim is different. It’s not like going to a community pool… up and down, up and down in a chlorinated, hot, sticky environment… The first time I swam at Pittenweem tidal pool, the seals on the rocks next to us started singing. Next thing we knew, dolphins were throwing themselves out of the water, dancing. And you just think, why would you swim anywhere else?”

So I’m ending the piece I pitched as ‘The decline of community swimming baths’ by realising that actually we’re in a renaissance for the open-access pool. Renewed interest since COVID has allowed community groups to invest in their pools. At Cellardyke they’ve installed new steps, ladders, and a sluice gate – draining and clearing of the pool completely. The same has happened at Pittenweem and St Monans, a community-driven initiative to reclaim spaces originally abandoned long-ago.

“There’s something elemental about being in the water and being held” Ms Ferguson tells me. These women are being supported: by the waves, and by each other.

Illustration by Hannah Beggerow

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