Friday, 3 April 2009

Victoria Baths - Manchester's Water Palace reopens to visitors this weekend

It’s that time of year again. The days are getting longer, flowers are blooming, the sun is coming out more often - and one of Manchester’s best loved buildings is having a spring clean and reopening to the public.

Victoria Baths’ popular open days, held on the first Sunday of every month, will recommence on April 5, after the building (still in a derelict state and without heating) was closed for the long, cold winter.

There’s more to do than just look around a building - the opening will be marked with a choir performance, and other first Sundays will see table top sales, a Lego workshop and more musical entertainment and performances, as well as the usual café and souvenir stalls.

Even without that entertainment, though, and in its still dilapidated state, a visit to the Baths is a breathtaking experience. In September 2003, 282,018 people voted it the winner of BBC2’s Restoration programme, winning it £3.5million (including £3million from the heritage lottery fund). It was granted a further £450,000 by English Heritage, which has helped to start returning it to its former glory.

Restoration phase 1 was completed in 2008, and work should start this summer on making the Gala pool fit for use again, as well as restoring the Turkish Baths. However, it will cost £20million to fully restore the building, and you can see why when you’re lost inside its grand scale and overwhelmed by its pomp and circumstance - the Baths is from a different age, when public buildings were built with ambition that went far beyond their functionality, and aimed to inspire the public and instill respect and awe. The Baths' future and place in the day to day life of modern Manchester is still uncertain, as it’s owned by a private developer - suggestions include conversion into mixed used space that will incorporate offices.
From the outside, the Grade 2* listed building is imposing, standing like a large mint striped with multicoloured bricks and terracotta. That doesn’t prepare you for the inside, however, and the three huge prism ceilings. You can wander round the balconies and gaze down into the pools.

The attention to detail is incredible, from the cast iron blue swimming cubicles with their candy stripe pink and white curtains and the ornate ironwork of the turnstiles at the front of the building to the mosaics with their fish designs and the panelled ceiling of the Turkish Baths. Light smears the glazed Pilkington tiles that decorate the first class males entrance hall from floor to ceiling like petrol making rainbow colours in puddles of water.

The jewel in Victoria Baths' crown, though, is undoubtedly the stained glass that adorns the building, culminating in the gorgeous Art Deco style Angel of Purity in the Turkish Baths Rest Room. When the building floods with light on a sunny day, the windows cast patterns on the ceiling, walls and floors and it feels like you’re walking into a stained glass window.

Victoria Baths was designed by Manchester’s first city architect, Henry Price, and built between 1903 and 1906, at huge expense. Opened in 1906, Manchester’s Lord Mayor, called it “a water palace of which every citizen of Manchester is proud”. There are sister baths in Withington and Harpurhey (which is similarly derelict, and finally closed to the public in 2001), also designed by Price, but Victoria Baths is undeniably the grandest and most spectacular. Unfortunately, the council did not share the public’s enthusiasm for Victoria Baths, which was becoming more and more expensive to maintain and repair, and the building closed in 1993, despite public opposition and being occupied by protestors.The building almost has a personality of its own, and looks like a film star (which it is). The Baths has featured in various films and TV series over the years including Prime Suspect, Life on Mars, the Barry Gibb film Now Voyager and, most recently, the execrable programme How to Look Good Naked, in which Gok Wan and Mylenne Klass encouraged women to strip naked and hosed them down in the baths.

Even in its emptiness - perhaps because the pools, drained of water, amplify the ghosts of its former users - the Baths seem alive; with memories, such as the sound of children’s laughter at swimming galas, with ambition, with the large personalities that came be associated Victoria Baths, including the strict swimming teachers that are reminisced about at open days over and over again.

Visitors at open days are encouraged to give their memories of the Baths for the Victoria Baths archives. The dances that were held when the floors were tiled over for the winter, sound tracked by popular jazz bands, often feature, and many couples have fond memories of meeting at the baths. Others, children, pupils at local schools at the time, describe visiting the Baths in their lunch hours and spending their pocket money on Bovril and toast from the café.

That’s what must be remembered about the Baths - the role it played in people’s lives. When it opened, the authorities hoped every child in Manchester would be taught to swim, and this was encouraged through the following decades with free swimming passes for children achieving swimming certificates. South Manchester Swimming Club had its home at the Baths, and who wouldn’t be inspired by the magnificence of the building? The Olympic swimmers Zilpha Grant and Dianne Ashton trained in the pool, as well as the Sunny Lowry, the first British woman to swim the channel in 1933, who remained a familiar sight at the Baths until her death at the age of 97 last year.

The Baths go beyond a sporting utility though. Built at a time when much of the surrounding terraced housing didn’t have bathrooms, families had the weekly luxury of a bath in the building. Women visited the Baths to do their laundry and friendships were forged in the Turkish Baths restrooms.

In many ways, the building is very of its time - there are separate entrances for 1st class males, 2nd class and females, and separate pools, but it’s proved adaptable over the years, even hosting Factory Records parties in the years before its closure. The building has been put to imaginative use as an arts venue over the last few years too, including inviting an artist in residence, Ally Wallace, to create a large scale work in response to the building last year.

It’s important a financially sustainable use is found to keep Victoria Baths open to the public, not just as a tribute to beautiful architecture and design. It’s a reminder of the history of the areas around it - Victoria Park, Longsight and Levenshulme, but especially Ardwick, which in recent years has changed beyond all recognition. As well as being a concrete monument to personal history and memories, it’s a fascinating document of the way we were, the way the Victorians thought, and how far we’ve come. It’s also a tribute to the innovations in building and sanitation that found their way into the design, including Victoria Baths having its own well and water supply. The Baths also housed the first public aerotone - a kind of early Jacuzzi - in the country.

Victoria Baths
Hathersage Road
Chorlton on Medlock (just off Oxford Road, behind the Royal Infirmary)

Open days, starting on April 5, take place every first Sunday between 12-4pm and cost £2 for adults, free for children.

Guided tours of the building will take start at 2pm every Wednesday from April 1, and cost £4.

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