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May 30, 2012

The sound of splash

Most folk can remember where they learnt how to swim – those first wild strokes without arm bands. Perhaps that’s the reason why swimming pools stir up such passion when threatened with closure.  Eleven years ago, that happened to Govanhill Baths.  Since then, the community have worked tirelessly to have these famous Baths reopened under local ownership. Any day now, and with National Theatre of Scotland an unlikely partner, the sound of happy splashing will be heard once more.


The noisy sound of water gushing from a curly green hose at the bottom of the empty, white, echoey pool was a moment that the community had waited a long time for.

Against a backdrop of cheering, whistling and clapping, 66 year old Jean Adair made history as she proudly turned on the tap to refill the smallest swimming pool in the Govanhill Baths.

After 11 years of campaigning, fundraising and battling with Glasgow City Council, the dogged determination of Govanhill residents has finally paid off with the restoration of the teaching pool as a swimming facility – thanks in part to the National Theatre of Scotland who are using it to perform a play in September.

“It feels really good, it was absolutely fantastic and I was really pleased that they picked me,” says Jean, who has lived and worked in Govanhill for decades.

Generations of her family used the pool, which led her – like hundreds of others – to get involved in the campaign to save the baths when the council announced they were closing the facility.

She explained, “I started to swim in this pool when I was four and later my two boys swam in here and then my granddaughter came when she was two.”

There was outrage and anger across the community when the building closed and the local people began their occupation on March 23 2001. A protest was held and although the group were formally removed in August, a picket line remained outside until the following year. Jean lived across from the building and fondly remembers, “I did the picket line. If someone didn’t turn up on any of the nights, they just came across to the house and I came over. The campaign was brilliant. The bin men gave us fish suppers and people handed in breakfasts and papers. We never bought anything,” she laughs. “I think when it was finished there were about 100 tins of beans left in our cupboards.”

Although local people were redirected to the swimming facilities in the Gorbals or in Castlemilk, many simply stopped swimming and were unable to travel.

“Most people have a lot of kids,” says Jean, “And the bus fares were terrible. And people from Govanhill didn’t want to have to go all the way to Castlemilk – you don’t want your kids going on the bus alone. The people round here definitely missed the pool. A lot of people died without any exercise. My friend Margaret died. She couldn’t get up the stairs at Rutherglen and she couldn’t walk from the bus stop to the Gorbals. It’s taken a long time to get to this stage and hopefully we can go forward and get the water in the rest of the pools now.”

Although the funding came from the National Theatre for Scotland, this symbolic first step affirms to locals that if the teaching pool can be refilled, then the dream of reopening the large pool might not be far away. The project will be developed in three phases, with the opening of all three of the pools, the Turkish and sauna suites, an allotment, a community café and music venue all in the pipeline in the coming years.

After a decade of fundraising and negotiating, the keys to the boarded up building were finally handed back to the people in February. By this time the local residents had set up the Govanhill Baths Community Trust and established a community kitchen and meeting area in the front of the building.

Trust chairman Andrew Johnson said: “Though we are very regretful the council closed the pool – we think for spurious reasons – they’ve let us back in by giving us a lease and full occupation of the front area.

“They are very happy it’s being reopened as a community facility – for the community, run by the community. After 11 years and two months we’re actually going to have people swimming again in the baths after all this time. Behind that is the important point that these baths were first opened as a community facility by the municipal fathers in 1917. It was a facility for health, recreation and fitness and until 2001 it remained that way.”

Watching the water fill up in the smallest pool was an emotional occasion for Andrew, who taught all of his four children to swim in it.

He smiles, “I moved to Glasgow in 1976 and started to use the pool pretty immediately. First I lived in Pollokshields then I moved to Govanhill for seven years. As four children came along we used the pool but then two of my daughters were excellent swimmers and they swam competitively.

“They swam in the Kingston swimming club which was a major resource for local kids. About 200 kids swam in the club and it was all stopped in 2001 when the baths were closed. Most of the children stopped swimming then because they were told to go up to Castlemilk to swim instead. Now, in 2012 in September we will be back again swimming in the toddlers pool.”

Vital funding from the National Theatre for Scotland is paying for the refilling of the teaching pool, which will stage Lifeguard, by artist Adrian Howells later this year.

The performer has worked in the community, gathering stories and anecdotes about the pool which he used to create the devised piece – which will require the audience and the actors to change into swimming costumes and get into the water to take part. Nick Millar, Lifeguard production manager says: “One of the themes that runs through the piece is that people say during it,‘I learned to swim in this pool’. People come into the pool and tell us that. People did learn to swim here. It matters where you learn to swim. We are going to teach someone to swim as part of the production and they will be the first person to learn to swim in the pool.”

The water was turned on as part of tests to the the integrity of the facility – after 11 years, it may not be as robust as it was when it was last full of water, explains Nick.

“Over the years things could have happened to the pool. Water might have got in from above and then frozen and caused cracks. So we need to refill the pool to test its integrity to check it doesn’t leak. If that’s all good then with a bit of work we can get it filled, ready for people to use.”

The excitement and energy around the Govanhill Baths is evident throughout the community. There’s such a sense of anticipation around the south side for the reopening that often people turn up at the front door with towels and swimming costumes in the belief that the pools are open already, only to be told ‘not yet’.

It won’t be long before Andrew will be able to welcome local people back in to splash around, he says eagerly.

“After the history, having first started doing this in 1976, the feelings are not only about the thrill of getting in the water,” he says.

“There’s a thrill about being able to say we were right. That we’re going to do it, we’ve said we were going to do it and we’ve done it so there’s a great excitement about actually succeeding. This is far more than about a community opening a swimming pool. This is about a community getting together working together over a long period and proving you can be successful against all political odds.”