The beauty of municipal swimming pools

The everyday municipal pool does not feature much in the canon of great swimming pools. But it has its charms.
The main pool in the Art-Deco style Mounts Baths in Northampton, England. Mount Baths opened in 1936 and is believed to be the only Art Deco swimming pool in the UK.
The main pool in the Art-Deco style Mounts Baths in Northampton, England. Mount Baths opened in 1936 and is believed to be the only Art Deco swimming pool in the UK. Credit: Christopher Furlong via Getty Images.
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Mid-October, and Britons, at least, can confidently consign a dismal summer to the past. The hardiest among us to take to open water for their exercise. I live beside the sea, and last winter during the depths of England’s third, mournful lockdown I beheld a strange sight – the water was full of swimmers.  You could barely move for them. This was a new phenomenon; the North Sea never being that inviting even during the heights of summer. I don’t blame them of course – there was literally nothing else to do.

While I generally swim in the sea between April and October, I passed the time during that last shut-in winter prevaricating about what sort of equipment was necessary to take the plunge in cold weather. Luckily, by the time I finished researching what sort of neoprene gloves and socks I would need, it was spring again.  

I am doubtful whether I will swim in the sea this winter – despite it being touted as a cure for almost every mental and physical health condition you could care to name. Partly because in the south of England there is a very real and scandalous sewage problem – Southern Water have been illegally dumping untreated sewage along the north Kent and south coasts for years; and continue to do so. And besides, I have learned to love the swimming pool.

Swimming pools hold a special place in the cultural imagination. They are nearly always sun-drenched, outdoors, glamorous. David Hockney’s 1967 painting A Bigger Splash speaks to a northern European yearning for the sun-lit mystique of Californian pools; bright, clean and modern. The 2015 film of the same name, set on the small Italian island of Pantelleria, re-uses the cinematic trope of the pool as deadly weapon, superlatively showcased in Billy Wilder’s 1950 Sunset Boulevard.

There are endless examples: Charlotte Rampling’s excellent turn as a frustrated writer in 2003’s slightly overcooked Swimming Pool; Deborah Levy’s unnerving 2011 novel, Swimming Home where the strange body in the pool is very much alive, but a portent of chaos nevertheless.

Then there are the more prosaic depictions of the suburban pool. John Cheever’s 1964 short story (and 1968 film starring Burt Lancaster) ‘The Swimmer’ famously depicts the gradual unfurling of protagonist Neddy Merrill’s psyche as he attempts, one Sunday afternoon in affluent New York suburbia, to swim eight miles home via ‘a string of swimming pools, a quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.’ A journey that starts out a delight with ‘prosperous men and women gathered by the sapphire-colored waters while caterer’s men in white coats passed them cold gin…’ ends in ignominy with Merrill ‘miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered’ outside his dark and deserted home.

The everyday municipal pool doesn’t feature much in this canon. There is less metaphor, and little mystery. Not breathtakingly cold or strikingly wild enough to boast about on social media; not complicated enough to require much in the way of exotic equipment (although a chlorine proof swimsuit is highly recommended unless you are an exhibitionist) – they are just simply there.

This wasn’t always the case, of course. Municipal swimming pools, like so many things, came into being in the UK as a by-product of the Industrial Revolution. The first publicly-funded baths opened in Liverpool 1829, although entry prices were out of reach for the working-classes. A cholera outbreak and an 1846 Act of Parliament led to the creation of many more public baths for the urban masses living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Golden ages of architecture and design have followed, including richly-decorated late Victorian and Edwardian buildings, and swooping, glamorous Art Deco examples such as the Grade II listed 1933 Smethwick Swimming Centre, just west of Birmingham.

Sadly, my local pool has no such uplifting architectural features, but it is at least, as the saying goes, fit for purpose. And there is both fascination and a dichotomy with remaining in a private mental space within a public setting: the swimming pool is people watching at its finest. I enjoy the spectacle, for example, of the woman who has made up her own stroke, a sort of underwater butterfly with front crawl legs. Inspired, I once tried to copy her but failed spectacularly.

Since lockdown eased and the pool re-opened, the lanes have descended into anarchy. The fast lane is, as usual, inhabited by men (it is always men I am afraid) who really enjoy making a splash. The middle lane is now, it seems, the slow lane, and as for the slow lane, I’m really not sure. It has become a watery social setting, a place to sit and gossip, or perhaps walk around in the shallow end – actual swimming is rarely practised here. I am aggrieved by this flagrant disregard for order, but I do my best, finding my annoyance at the behaviour of others slipping away with each meditative length I swim.

While the rest of the world enjoys wild swimming there I shall be, plodding quietly along the lanes, dreaming of one day swimming in Hockney’s bright modernist pools, or glittering blue Mediterranean ones – the finest public pool I have ever swum in is Monaco’s Rainer III Nautical Stadium, an Olympic-sized open-air edifice where, for just a few euros, you can briefly feel like one of the Principalities’ millionaires. One day, I shall return. I’d even take a dive into Cheever’s suburban metaphor.

Fay Schopen

Fay Schopen is a freelance journalist and editor. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph and The Observer, among others.

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