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?