Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Mosley Baths

'There are good ships and bad ships and the difference between them has nothing to do with being seaworthy. If I was fanciful I might say some had souls. There are ships built to withstand the worst the almighty can throw at them yet they go down with hardly a murmur, and there are other frailer craft, who having battled the winds and lost masts , yards and canvas, still born safe home to harbour. With experience a man can tell the one from the other the moment he steps aboard, neither from look nor feel, from some fathoms deep within himself.'

'The Birthday Boys' Beryl Bainbridge p 46, Petty Officer Evans.

My first trip to Mosley Baths, a mythical place, the subject of campaign and demonstration- one of the oldest baths in the country. Closed for months since I moved to this land locked city half on it's promise.


It's a walk, a bus ride away, excitement more than the travel to Solihull.

Turrets of excitement, separate entrances, for men, for women, for classes etched in stone above arched wooden doors. Beautiful edwardian splendour in the middle of a city known for industrialism.

I've passed that wooden door solid its impenetrability, sign keeping out the enquiries, almost everyday on the way to the city centre. Ear to the ground for internet rumours waiting for it to open.

Then with no fanfare, no announcement, one day the sign was gone and the door was open. A chance to swim in historical depths.

Into old beauty, cracked tiles and history, confused signs and cordoned off areas. I pay for my swim through a window slot to a friendly women. None of the shiny glass, gum chewing teenagers, bored look in their eye that I've come to expect from Solihull.

I make a few wrong turns, locked doors, promise behind them, the splash of anticipation, the echo of the pool and then...

Profound disappointment. She's a small one.

A tin tub, a bath, almost the size of a children's pool where I cut my swimming teeth learning my crawl. It's no 25 metre, it's not even my old favourite Maze Hill in Greenwich it's statue at 22 metres. She's a 17 stroke, 18 stroke length, finish before I've even started type pool. 
There's just communal showers, cubicles on the side, one ladies toilet in the corner. I don't want to return to Solihull swimming, to mis-placed lane rage and swim confusion. 
I start panicking into plan B before I dip my toe in; Coventry or worse begin to wonder just how long that pool is at LA Fitness on the high street. 
I'll give it a go, I'm here now paid my entry. Chipped tiles, arched windows, a floor that 1000 vurruca's have touched. For over 100 years. 
The life guard smiles..no sullen teenagers here. How long is the pool I ask politely-unlike me I'm not prone to talking to clothed strangers while in my cossie. Usually. With a smile, he answers 21 metres, that's just minus one from Maze Hill, the only place I've swam 3 miles in one go. 
'Approximately' He says with another wide smile. 
'I won't hold you too it'. 
Two people in the fast lane. (And it's named a redeeming feature which already blows Solihull out of the water, despite it's lacking of length). 
I get in and it is, pleasant. The people in the fast lane let me past, now problems, smiles in fact. Friendly, polite. Not too busy, something. Something lovely about swimming there, trying to take in the ageing scenery. 
I do two miles (or there abouts my on the spot, on swim maths isn't a strong point-around 73 lengths, I think in waterlogged addition) and it's easy, glide through water, almost (almost not, really almost) like the pleasure that I feel in the sea, smiling underwater. Wash away my thoughts. And while it's true that I reach the end before I know it, something about it, about this pool, seems right. Its all wrong, it's too short, but there's a pleasure in it I haven't felt for a while. I end nearly with a lane to myself lapping a man with easy effort. Worried that I don't want to seem rude. Not ignoring the unknown etiquette of how the lanes are run. 

There are just showers on the side, open to all, and as I walk across, everyone says 'Morning' like we're not really not wearing anything. A man talks to me while we shower tells me a story. 

'Everyday for 18 months I've walked past that shut door. I used to swim here everyday, every morning five days a week. Would walk here in my shorts, and flip flops, come rain or shine, but that door it was never open. And then! That door was open, and I'm back here again, so happy, so happy. You know you get to know the faces here, it's all friendly, same faces in the morning. So I shower here get ready and straight to work. And people, at work they ask me...what are you on? Swimming, I say..' He smiles at me through the water pouring down in our communal shower. 

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