Monday, 22 August 2016

GOING TO SAUL STREET PUBLIC BATHS IN PRESTON IN THE SIXTIES

One of the dubious pleasures of my Prestonian upbringing during the Sixties was the visit to the baths, in my case Saul Street Baths near Preston Bus Station.

Now, modern kids might wonder what I'm on about. Baths? What, Turkish Baths? Roman Baths? No, nothing as exotic. Baths was what everyone called an indoor public swimming pool back then.

Saul Street Baths was a classic of its type. A huge squat Victorian pile filled with fluid. A temple for swimming. A fortress of water. But we'll get to the liquids later.

First you had to go in and pay and make your way to the changing rooms, in my case, the male ones. Grotesque doesn't really do the changing rooms justice. A humid, stinking sweatshop divided into rows of narrow cubicles surrounded by a wall of battered grey lockers, it looked just like the inside of a submarine.

Once in the cubicles it got worse. the ultra-thin bench wasn't big enough to hold all your stuff so you then attempted to use the single hook on the back of the door to keep your clothes from landing in the cess-pool at your feet! 

The floor was foul, a moist cocktail of pool water and god knows what else squeezed from the previous user's truncks. Sods law predicted that your socks would land in it and they did. You just prayed your dry undies didn't but they did too.

In an attempt at modernisation Saul Street Baths did introduce that cutting edge of cubicle conveniences, the clothes and shoes basket, a metal plastic-covered wire container for neatly placing clothes in one side and shoes in the other. Deluxe versions even had a tall handle with a coat hanger welded on for your natty new bomber jacket.

But kids aren't really neat and like everyone else, once my speedos were on, I piled my stuff into a locker any which way. Those wire baskets were toast.

Leaving the locker lead to the next challenge: where to put the locker key, which came on a thick rubber band: in your trunks, round your neck? No, the simple answer was 1. if you were cool, unlike me, then round your ankle like Mark Spitz or 2. if you were normal, like me, round your wrist like a hospital patient. Any prematurely hairy urchins could be heard screaming miles way.

Now suitably keyed up and looking positively Olympian in my purple trunks with handy white draw-string, I would proceed to the Everest of gross, the most nauseating slick of liquid found on Earth anywhere. Yes, the walk-through hygiene trough just in front of the main swimming baths. 

Words can't adequately describe this fetid puddle made up of a thousand varieties of athlete's foot, bunions and verrucas. The Baths would have you believe it was disinfectant and nothing survived in it. Pants I say, it was just old bath water for feet! Yuk!

Once through the sheep dip the pool proper yawned before you like the bay of Biscay. It seemed vast, slippery and noisy. So noisy you could hardly hear a thing. Everything echoed endlessly round the high walls. It was pointless talking normally so kids would shout and that only made it worse!

So in this yelling, slippy, white-tiled hulk of period utilitarianism you would have to make one of the biggest decisions of your life: how to enter the pool?

Many complex factors came into play at this juncture, all juggled within a nano-second of crocodile cool. At the most vulnerable of moments, virtually naked in front of 'orrible lads from the next street, cool cats wearing tiny goggles and even worse, girls, you would have to navigate the cross-hairs of public etiquette and peer pressure.

The huge notice board on the wall at either end of the baths said quite clearly what NOT to do: no running, no splashing, no dive-bombing and no drowning. It should have said no urinating too! It also said no heavy petting but I had to ask my big Brother what that was when I got home! I'm still unsure exactly what it involved and have never seen the strange phrase used anywhere else except Saul Street Baths in the Sixties!

Taking all this into account and ignoring the unintelligible roars from snot-faced lads treading water, I jumped in near the middle, half way between the paddling area and the scary deep end.

It was only when you hit the water that you realised that Preston Corporation had it shipped in from Mars. It was not of this Earth that's for sure. Surely this, a bubbling medium for brain storage, was not for kids to swim in! It was almost pure chlorine! There was so much chlorine you could see it rising as gas from the water's surface. Once, in fact, our whole school class was poisoned and they had to shut the baths!

After being in the pool, attempting to breast stroke [is that heavy petting?], crawl, mouth spurt, half-drown, have your speedos pulled down, choke, have your eyes welded together and scrape your knees getting out on the metal ladders bought cheap from the Titanic, it was time to get dressed, repeating the earlier wet performance in the cubicle only in reverse.

There was something distinctly skin-crawling about getting dressed after a swim in a public baths. Huge goose-pimples covered me, my trunks were cold and moist like a washed-up jellyfish, my eyes had dissolved and my hair was plastered on my head in a weird dry-wet way. I stunk like Domestos and basically looked like the Joker after his dip in the acid vat. Yuk!

Wringing my wet speedos was possibly the worst thing I had to do as a kid, a foul job only topped by having to rescue them from the frothing brew if I accidentally dropped them in my cubicle. Rolling them up in my towel created a sort of damp pancake, which, once dressed I clamped under my arm and left to face the foyer.

But salvation awaited. The single best thing, the bestest, at Saul Street Baths was the cafe in the cellar. An warm oasis of dry calm, choc-ful of kids chewing and slurping with the quiet contentment of tired young apes. Rolled towels were everywhere and everyone's hair was spiky.

My favourite treat post-baths was a winning, grinning combination of hot sweet tea and a stick of Highland Toffee. Taken together in the mouth the creamy taste of the toffee melting in the tea was beyond any words I'd learnt in Beano thus far. It was simply Saul Street Heaven!

Do you remember going to the public baths readers?

17 comments:

  1. wellll, that brought back dome memories. While Dad would take us all to the beach at times - some lake out of town, NEVER Lake Michigan - my friends and I would occasionally go to what we call the 'Natatorium', a relative sea of calm in a somber brick building lightly populated with people and smelling of chlorine. If I remember it correctly it was on Wisconsin Ave, part way between my house and the downtown area, perhaps not even a mile from the house. Our group of kids would walk there, play and get wet, and walk back home. Today in that same neighborhood, one would need an armored car and armed guards to navigate the streets safely - sad.

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    1. The great Lakes look huge on a map Ed. Like small seas. It does make sense that they would have beaches. How come you never went to Lake Michigan?

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  2. Memories alright...I need a stiff drink now Woodsy's dragged up those!

    Aldershot garrison pool, [under-six] ladies changing rooms! I saw things that will haunt me all the days of my life . . . and things I'm still looking for!

    Woodsy . . . some things are best not rekindled! Fiend!

    Victorian brick box - check, smell of clorine - check, stingy-eyes and you forgot to mention open changing areas, no heating - in the water or out of it, Satan heard my teeth catter - and smiled! Our eyes were still smarting when we got home 40 minutes later! The horror...the horror!

    But Brecon had a post-modern lesuire centre with two pools (heated) and a diving board! It had it's own car park (!) and picnic area (!!!) and a machine that dispenced chewy-toffee and peanut bars!

    H

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    1. Aldershot! I used to live there! North Camp 1986, whilst studying at Farnborough Tech. I never went to the baths there I don't think but my two year old daughter may have done. With her Mum I mean. Not on her own! A garrison pool sounds exclusive. Not for the general public I take it. Brecon sounds much nicer - it is in a National Park after all - but you have reminded me of my own bete noire, diving boards. I had buried that memory deep and now its out! I hate diving boards! and as for that novel we all want to write, I baggsy your phrase for its title, 'Satan Heard My Teeth Chatter' ha ha. Love it!

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    2. No Woodsy, it doubled-up as the public baths, there were public times and beasting-squaddie times and never the twain did meet! You can have the line with my blessing....mine will be 'Satan saw me coming'!

      I lived in North camp in '88 and again from '97-2006! The party shop on Queens road still had LP 60mm's (chrome-plated) in '98, I bought them, but gave them to Paul at Plastic Warrior magazine!

      H

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  3. The Lido at Blackpool. Awesome. At least in my rose-tinted spectacles of youth anyway.

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    1. My Wife says we've been there Yorkie. In the Eighties. I don't recall the trip but I do remember visiting a Lido in a park in Preston in the Seventies. Haslam Park? It was strangely continental to be swimming in the open air. I recall it being very small and rectangular. Wonder if Lidos still exist in the UK? They're everywhere in Europe.

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  4. A blast from the past Woodsy! There was nothing that us, me and my pals, loved better as kids as the Baths. So much so that they even had to introduce a time limit of 1.30 hrs per visit, as we would delve into aquatic pleasures for up to six hours at best.

    The dare was to climb up the 5-metre tower and plunge down head-on. Did that a couple of times just for show, but preferred diving into the bottom of a 5-metre deep pool for as long as I could hold my breath. The bliss of surfacing again, eyes red from chlorine!

    Loved your description of changing rooms, an experience that must be the same everywhere. Plus learned a couple of useful new medical terms (then again, hopefully not so useful).

    Happy days!

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    Replies
    1. You sound like Mark Spitz Arto! 5 metre towers, that's more or less in Heaven! The depth of pools always confused me. I know the Deep End was pretty damn deep and you certainly couldn't stand up but exactly how deep I don't know. 5 metres sounds bottomless to me! As for Chlorine, yuk. Whatever happened to swimming in lakes au naturel?

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  5. Hated swimming, hated the baths (which are still in operation), your description is bang on though.

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    1. That is one stubborn baths if its still going Kevin! Then again Saul Street Baths may still be going. I moved away in 1979!

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  6. If there's a Pulitzer or Booker category for tales of teenage terror, then that most evocative description should win it hands down, Woodsy. It's bang on target and described in a way that would give goosebumps to A A Poe.

    I can add one more horror though: PE at school in Brussels took us to a piscine olympique once a week, where (also under the pretext of hygiene) one was required to wear a bathing cap, regardless of gender. A bathing cap, I ask you! A smelly, gummy rubber suction cup around the cranium that I'm sure will have contributed greatly to premature hair loss. And which of course looked utterly ridiculous, despite the humiliation being shared by all the other chaps as well. I shudder with the mere recollection... ech!

    Best -- Paul

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    Replies
    1. Cheers Paul! I had forgotten that swimming was done in PE lessons! and yours was in an olympic pool! wow! Yes, the rubber hat, your description is spot on! They were obscene. Rubber and hair just don't mix do they. I'm unsure if we had to wear caps but it does ring a bell. Must have been awful for girls with long hair. My Wife wore one and whenever she sees a shop that sells them we have a feel. Hers had rubber flowers on! ha ha

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    2. Now you two have fired-off more memories of treading-water in your soaked pajama's for five minutes and retrieving a brick from the bottom of the deep-end while the PE Gauleiter yelled stuff you couldn't make out (due to the sound in those plases) and blew his whistle incessantly - to get some swimming badge!

      People only had kids in the 1960's to hand them to torturers!

      H

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    3. @Woodsy: "obscene" is exactly the right word, in every sense. Though I gather girls with long hair did find them useful to keep it dry? And I recall the ones with rubber flowers on - whoever dreamed up that variety must've lived in a padded cell... btw - the 'olympique' refers to the size of the pool, not the history of the facilities. Which were fairly recent back then, though bland and boring in a cheap seventies way, which otherwise did excel in keeping up the traditions you described so frighteningly well.

      @Hugh: only five minutes treading water in soaked pyjamas? We were fully clothed and had to do five -lengths- of that olympic size for some certificate or other.

      Best -- Paul

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    4. I think there's an Olympic Pool near us in Leeds. Increasing the size of the lengths is just cruel. I was always a 'widths' man myself! I could do twice as many widths as lengths! ha ha.

      I'm pretty sure I had to inflate my pajama pants for a life-saving badge. This involved tying knots into the legs and waist and rescuing someone using it as a float! Surely this wouldn't work. Pajamas aren't air tight are they? I always wondered when I would be in my pajamas and really have to inflate my trousers. I got the badge.

      Delete
  7. oops: E A Poe.

    ReplyDelete

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