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MANC HOLIDAY

17-09-2008

Victoria Baths

Five years after winning the BBC’s inaugural Restoration series, Manchester’s Victoria Baths has just completed Phase 1 of it’s reconstruction and refurbishment programme. Steve Beauchampé takes a look around a venue that might hold lessons for Birmingham’s Moseley Road baths.

As part of research for Great Lengths, a forthcoming English Heritage book on the history of swimming pools, I recently travelled with some friends to visit Manchester’s Grade II* Victoria Baths, on Hathersage Road, just south of the city centre.

The building, closed since 1993, was the first winner of the BBC’s Restoration series in 2003 and this success and the attendant publicity has been widely credited with raising public awareness of the plight of historic swimming pools nationwide.

Victora Baths - Interior

Having watched and read various features and reports on the Victoria Baths over the years we all had a good idea of the building’s splendour, yet the reality more than matched expectations. It’s a masterpiece inside and out, with something memorable or breathtaking in every room of this very large building.

Although the Baths were awarded grants totalling almost £4m as a result of the Restoration victory (£3m from Heritage Lottery Fund, £500,000 from the BBC’s Restoration fund and £450,000 from English Heritage), this money falls well short of the overall figure required to refurbish and reopen the entire building, estimated at around £20m.

Whilst still owned by Manchester City Council, the building is managed on a day basis by the Victoria Baths Trust, which enjoys charitable status.

Formed by local residents in 1993, the Trust has been overseeing implementation of the first stage of the restoration programme, supported by members of the Friends of Victoria Baths group (also established in 1993, following an occupation of the Gala Pool by campaigners), whose tireless work to save the building has included raising a 16,000-signature petition.

The Trust and the Friends enjoy a close, informal working relationship; though the Trust’s constitution prohibits it from undertaking political campaigning, a restriction not applicable to the Friends.

During an almost four-hour stay, we were shown round every nook and cranny of the building (firstly the public areas by Project Manager Gill Hughes, then, following lunch, the plant rooms and basement by her colleague Neil Bonner).

The baths opened in 1906, designed by Manchester’s first City Architect Henry Price and built by the local firm of Normanton and Sons, The complex contained three swimming pools, 64 private washing or ‘slipper’ baths, and a suite of Turkish Baths.

Stained glass windows, mosaic floors and decorative tiling feature throughout, with generous use made of ornamental ironwork and pitch pine and bay wood joinery. On the First Floor, there was an extensive four-bedroom flat for the Bath Superintendent and his family.

Sadly, none of the ‘slipper’ baths survive, while the former Males Second Class Pool was converted into a sports hall during the 1980s, with the dressing boxes removed.

Fortunately, almost everything else remains intact (if sometimes a little the worse for wear), including the original Ellison entrance turnstiles and the first public Aeratone therapeutic bath (an early form of Jacuzzi) in England, installed in 1952.

Work began in March 2007 on Restoration Phase 1, with a programme of structural work to the Turkish Baths and the building’s front block. This included reconstructing the floor and roof of the Turkish Baths, restoration of stained glass, leaded windows and mosaic flooring, repairs to the roof, brickwork and terracotta.

The wraps recently came off, and the building’s frontage, with its iconic clock tower, glorious brick banding and buff terracotta, once again looks impeccable. A formal celebration marking the completion of Phase 1 is scheduled for September 17th.

Having access to the entire building undoubtedly helps the Trust to develop activities, with some recent public open days (held monthly from March to October) attracting over 600 visitors.

A Victoria Baths Café operates on these occasions and a wide range of souvenir merchandise (we particularly liked the tea towels) is available to raise both funds and awareness. In addition many arts-based events have been held, including exhibitions of photography and video by local students, art exhibitions, dances, print workshops, a concert and theatrical performances.

To coincide with last week’s Heritage Open Days event (when the building was open to the public on four consecutive days) a Memories Day was staged for September 13th, when over 400 members of the public brought along their stories and memorabilia.

Despite it’s undoubted magnificence and high public profile, there remains no guarantee that the Victoria Baths will ever again be used for swimming and a business model has still to be developed that convinces Manchester City Council that sufficient revenue can be generated to prevent the building from becoming an ongoing draw on local authority finances (as if the health and social benefits of swimming aren’t enough to justify re-opening at least two pools).

The most likely scenario is that just one pool, plus the Turkish Baths, will eventually be re-opened with the remainder of the site (including service buildings and land to the rear) converted to other uses, such as residential, retail or perhaps even a spa hotel using facilities created from one of the pools.

To keep up to date with developments, visit www.victoriabaths.org.uk.

Before leaving for Birmingham we called in at another of the city’s more interesting sporting venues, the Manchester Tennis and Racquets Club, in Salford. Founded in 1874, the club has been based at it’s current, Grade 2* Listed, premises in Blackfriars Road since 1880.

Yet this is no ordinary tennis club, being home to one of only around 23 Real Tennis Courts extant in Britain (there are thought to be less than 40 in the world).

Given that none of our party had ever played Real Tennis before, we were grateful to the club’s professional Mark for explaining the rules of this complex, yet fascinating game, and allowing us to try our hand at it (to find out more about Real Tennis see either www.realtennis.gbrit.com).

In addition to playing, the club professional also makes the Real Tennis Balls (a mixture of cork, twine and cotton) and re-strings members’ rackets.

The club also has a Racquet Court (not to be confused with squash racquets, this game is played with a very hard, small ball which travels at up to 150mph) and a wooden skittle alley, both of which we were able to have a brief practice on, although sadly time constraints meant that we were unable to see the First Floor Squash Court, added in 1926.

With its imposing wood panelled entrance hall and members dining room, the MRTC is a very exclusive organisation, reminiscent in many ways of a golf club.

There are no Real Tennis clubs in Birmingham, but Warwickshire has two, Moreton Morrell Tennis Court Club, near Wellesbourne, and The Leamington Tennis Court Club.

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