Elegy for the Durham Baths

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Since New Elvet Bridge is under construction, whenever I want to walk into the Durham city centre I am faced with a choice: walk past the glamorous Prince Bishops multi-storey car park, or across a bridge, I have only recently come to know as Baths Bridge, which deposits me at the foot of a dilapidated brick building that anyone familiar with Durham City will know.

The building is immediately notable for being ringed with metal spikes and, depending on the direction from which you approach it, its array of broken windows or its use as a glorified community noticeboard. When I lived in town, I mostly approached it from the broken-windows angle, entertaining myself by imagining knocking out the last little pieces of glass with a tiny hammer, leaving the windows clear and open to the wind.

From my new direction, I am instead greeted by warning signs about the building’s security system. There are hearts chalked onto the boarded-up windows, complementing the keep out signs. One doorway boasts a silhouette of a person-outlined in jagged black spray paint—this has been there for years; over it has been spray-painted ‘COVID IS A HOAX’ (a newer addition that dates itself slightly). The other doorway features a variation on the theme: a human figure painted in dark maroon radiating out yellow and red echoes. Someone, discontent with beauty, has tried to rip bits of this poster off.

I walked past this building often for the better part of a year and barely noticed it. Despite its size and foreboding signs, its abandonment renders it almost invisible. It’s simply a part of the texture of the riverside walkway. This year, forced past the building by the closure of my usual bridge and spending a lot more time walking than usual, I began to notice it—the way plants have started growing out of the brickwork, tendrils climbing from the top of the crumbling chimney and bushes bursting through the ceiling, like an overgrown cottage in a fantasy illustration. I stopped seeing the broken windows and started seeing the windows as they once had been, large and beautiful, supported by lipped sills; I studied the careful design of the brickwork.

This building is what remains of the Durham Baths, a public pool built in the 1930s to replace a run-down bathhouse built in the 1860s (though I was not there, so will have to take Durham Archaeological Services’ word for it). Old pictures dug up online show the inside right before it was closed—the ceiling a soft russet, inset with white moulding and large windows. The pool is small, but charming, and the gallery of seating perched around the room suggests a community life around the water. There’s a second pool, smaller and ostensibly for children’s swimming lessons, as the walls are painted blue and decorated with sea animals.

Those sea animals are long gone; the pool was closed in 2007—apparently, itself having become run down—and replaced with the larger swimming centre at Freeman’s Quay. The walls of Durham baths, and the empty pools themselves, have become canvasses for extensive graffiti; the inside of the building is almost unrecognisable, jarring in its contrast to its former glory.

There is nothing left about the building to suggest it houses a dried-up swimming pool—Baths Bridge is not even sign-posted as such. I was alerted to the identity of the baths by a sign left around the back, informing me that Durham University was doing archaeological work on the site prior to potential development. The building is, of course, being torn down to be (allegedly) replaced with a new Business School. The Baths are mostly forgotten; its legacy is found in snatches of memories posted as online comments on local newspaper articles about its sale to the university—of learning to swim there, or being taken by one’s grandmother for a Saturday afternoon in the water. A guy named Joe used Twitter—a brand new service at the time—to tweet about how he was just home from swimming a mile at the Durham baths and ready for a can. 

Now that I know that the baths are there, I find myself desperately sad that they aren’t there. When I lived in the city centre, I used to bundle up my swimsuit and goggles and walk half an hour to Freeman’s Quay, pay my five pounds, and swim as long as I could to make the trip worth it. If I’d had the baths on my doorstep, I would like to think I’d have gone swimming more often and been better off for it. I can’t help but think that a pool in the city centre gives something more to the community than a slightly nicer business school, and, moreover, is less of an eyesore on the riverside. It seems like everyone I know feels this way—how is it that the only people who don’t are the ones making the decisions? 

Lately, I’ve been grappling with the futility of trying to keep things the same—to encase in resin a place you’ve known, or in this case, a place you’ve imagined. I like to think that when the baths were open they improved the city in some indistinct way, but I’m also confronted with the many opportunities I’ve let slip away with all the best intentions in the world. Taking those opportunities would have made my life better, but I couldn’t spare the effort or didn’t have the force of will, and now they’re gone. 

I wish that the baths were still in use. Or that the University would keep and renovate the building rather than tear it down for some hideous concrete campus extension. But for my own happiness, I have to preserve things in my mind as they are now. That’s partly why I’m writing this essay—to mark the baths as they exist today, shuttered and graffitied, the way I have known them, the way they have become special to me. I cannot go back to when they were open, and I cannot stop them from being razed. I can only appreciate the building as it is in front of me, as long as it is here.

If you are in Durham, I would ask you to go wander past the baths. Imagine the glass ceilings from the inside, as you float in that chlorinated blue; imagine sitting on the pool deck, watching some children learn to swim, hearing their shrieks of delight. Then imagine the pools empty, some teenagers feeling free—maybe for the first time—breaking through the busted windows to sit in the graffitied, dry expanse and get a little drunk and maybe kiss someone, spray paint their names somewhere. (I am romanticising, they’ll have been drinking Strongbow Dark Fruits and spray-painting the outline of a penis somewhere other kids once did cannonballs, but their experiences are also part of the history of the baths.) Now open your eyes and see the outside, the way the plants have turned the baths into their own kind of Miyazaki-esque ecosystem, the birds swooping in and out past the broken glass, the forgotten bricks, the half torn-off posters for one thing or another. You can’t swim there anymore, but you can walk past it, and even that has an expiration date.

I can’t resolve this tension in myself to keep everything the same, to preserve all beautiful old things and never build anything new, while knowing that things must change, that we desperately need more housing that has to be built somewhere, that communities and their needs change, and that the baths probably closed because no one used them, because we don’t live our lives in a way that incentivises the powers-that-be to keep old pools and theatres and amenities that make life a little better open. 

All I know is that the life you live can never be lived again by anyone else. Experience is a finite and precious resource. Keep your eyes open and touch what you can, because it slips by, and don’t be sad that no one will experience the world like you have, because they will feel the same for themselves. Maybe someone wrote an essay about regret and nostalgia when Durham tore down the 1860s bathhouse; maybe a hundred years from now, an old woman will tell her grandkids how sad she is that Durham is tearing down the old riverside business school—boy, was it ugly, but she’ll be damned if she didn’t spend her best days there, watching the swans float under Baths bridge (you know they call it that because there used to be a pool there, ages ago?). 

Illustration by Victoria Cheng

One thought on “Elegy for the Durham Baths

  • Isn’t the University, along with its influence and buying power, in talks with the County Council about acquiring the new County Hall, opposite Freemans pool as its new Business School?

    The old pool is on a flood plain and it was beautiful in its time.

    It needs demolishing and replacing by something beneficial to the city, but no doubt DU has plans for more accomodation buildings…….

    Reply

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