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October 24, 2012

Theatre makes a splash in community pool

A night out at the theatre doesn’t usually require the wearing of swimming costumes and an acceptance that you’re going to end up wet. But wet you will get if you’re lucky enough to have a ticket for the latest sell-out production of the National Theatre of Scotland – Lifeguard. Staging this unique event is just the latest achievement of the Govanhill community in a ten year quest to restore their magnificent Edwardian public baths to its former glory.


Anna Burnside

CLOSED by Glasgow City Council in 2001, Govanhill Baths have reopened as a ‘wellness centre’. The National Theatre of Scotland is using one pool for it latest show Lifeguard, concerts and cookery clubs are being held and the Steamie is to be reborn as a suite of offices. 

A local swimming pool. It’s something most of us take for granted, whiffing of chlorine and with terrible hairdriers. Back in the day the residents of Govanhill, on the south side of Glasgow, took their kids to splash about in the splendid Edwardian baths without a second thought. With its three separate pools, sauna, steam room and launderette, as well as an upper floor of public baths, it represented a solid municipal commitment to personal hygiene and wholesome exercise.

Since 2001, however, the Govanhill Baths have been a chlorine-free zone. On the day Glasgow City Council was set to close the doors for good, four members of a hastily convened action group chained themselves to the changing rooms. The building was occupied for five months before the protestors were evicted by sheriff’s officers. Much picketing and campaigning later, the Save Our Pool campaign became the Govanhill Baths Charitable Trust (GBCT). In 2008 the baths opened to the public (for looking around, not for swimming) as part of Doors Open Day. Many more strategic planning meetings, budgets and grant applications followed and today Govanhill Baths finally feels like a swimming pool again with the National Theatre of Scotland using the toddlers’ pool for its show, Lifeguard. Before rehearsals could start, the small pool was tested for leaks, patched up and then, finally, filled with 25,000 litres of chlorinated water. 

“Walking in there for me, with the first blast of chlorine, was unbelievable,” recalls Andrew Johnson, the GBCT chairman. “It was a real sense of joy and satisfaction. And vindication: you closed this place and you were wrong, and we’ve opened it.”

Over the last decade Johnson has seen the building on Calder Street evolve from a tatty but well-used sports facility into a wellness centre, a community hub to be used for much more than a few lengths of breaststroke. Despite not having a usable swimming pool, Govanhill Baths reopened to the public in 
February this year, the first part of a phased redevelopment that will eventually see it become an extraordinary community resource. 

It is all, says Johnson, “part of the business of being more than a swimming pool. When you have 1000 community members cramming into that street with 250 police officers, helicopters swirling above, horses charging down the street,” it becomes “something bigger politically”.

Fighting a drawn-out political campaign to save the building gave Johnson and the many others involved the confidence to unlock the building’s huge potential. Around 2005 they started to think about health benefits that went beyond aqua aerobics classes. As their luck would have it, so did Sir Harry Burns, the chief medical officer for Scotland. “He pressed hard on the connection between community health and recreational activities and facilities. He said that the sorts of things we were doing – 
concerts, drama classes, cookery clubs – were just as active an ingredient in good health as free fruit.”

With Burns leading the way, the GBCT’s ideas came together in plans for a community wellness centre with a swimming pool at its centre, and the rest of the building used for a cafe, meeting rooms, conference facilities and art suite with a kiln. Every inch would be used, including the roof, which would host a garden. It sounded as likely as Harvey Nichols taking over the nearby branch of Lidl. Now the building is open daily for classes and activities. The toddlers’ pool will remain open on a limited basis once Lifeguard is finished and within the next 18 months the rest of the £3.25 million phase one – the medium-size pool, gym and roof garden – will be ready.

The pool will continue to be run by the GBCT and should, at some point, start making money. The council will, Johnson hopes, subsidise swimming for children and pensioners on the same basis as its own facilities. The real cash generator will come in the next phase, when the former steamie, currently a dank space with ferns growing out of cracks in the wall, becomes offices and conference suites. “There will be an events suite and a market hall to engage local cultural groups to come on a regular basis and bring community in,” Johnson says. “We know there is a demand for conference facilities, people who want to come to an old Edwardian building rather than a hothouse hotel in the middle of the city.”

There are precedents for communities taking over their own sports facilities and running them successfully. When Edinburgh Leisure closed the Crags Sports Centre on the city’s south side, Boroughmuir Blaze Basketball Club, basketballscotland and Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association formed the charity which now runs the thriving club. Something similar happened at Queensferry Recreation Centre, when the town’s rugby club set up the not-for-profit Queensferry Sports and Community Hub Company to take over.

Some past-their-sell-by-date pools have found other uses. Edinburgh’s Infirmary Street Baths, the first public washing facilities in the capital and 30-odd years older than Govanhill Baths, closed in the 1990s. In 2009, after a £12m renovation, they reopened as Dovecot Studios. Weavers now work on vast looms in what used to be the pool. It’s possible to wander around and watch them from the old public gallery. For those who prefer swimming to contemporary tapestry, the Commonwealth Pool is just a mile or so up the road.

There are also precedents for communities doing it for themselves. The Goodwin Trust in Hull, set up in the city’s Thornton estate in 1994, is now Hull’s second-largest employer. It runs a three-storey multi-purpose building which includes a doctor’s surgery and a conference centre, a minibus service from the estate to the city centre and a huge range of services across the community. Johnson and the GCBT spent a couple of days there and were impressed. “Thornton is an area not unlike Govanhill, 7-8,000 people, drunkenness, drugs – they needed to do something about that.”

The Goodwin Trust, however, started out in a rented room opposite the job centre, not a swimming pool that the local authority was trying to close. No-one has, to Johnson’s knowledge, used a threatened sports facility as the springboard for a massively ambitious community regeneration project.

Despite all this activity – the occupation, the pickets and protests, the renovation, vast crowds visiting on Doors Open Day over the years, a panto, classes, parties and the very smart charity shop that raised £56,000 last year – not everyone in Govanhill has noticed what’s going on. “Since we opened in February, we get people just arriving, saying, this is fantastic what you’re doing, your activities, we’ve done this, this and this. But we also get people coming who’ve been in Govanhill for God knows how many years, saying, ooh, what’s happening here. It has passed them by. I shouldn’t be surprised at the level of heads down, depression. It’s a slow process.”

That is, says Johnson, the very reason that the baths are so important. “Sport is much more than getting fit, running around, winning medals. People need a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

• Lifeguard at Govanhill Baths until 27 October See and