Saturday, 26 September 2015

The baths

Templemore Avenue Public Baths, built in 1893. Where my primary school class went to swim in the mid-70s. 

What I remember.... a shivery, worried anticipation, cold, fear. My friends Stephanie and Joanne could swim much better than me. I didn't want to attract the teacher's attention. I tried hard. But I didn't come from the sort of family where we'd go to swimming baths regularly, where perhaps I'd be coached in special strokes and would "train". Instead, we had swum on random County Down beaches, teeth-chatteringly cold, where the best bit was racing up and down the sand afterwards, protesting and obeying Mum's instructions to keep warm by not giving in and shivering. Templemore was a different sort of swimming.

What I see now.... a sweet and shy child, grateful for the individual changing cubicles, where you could always delay just a little longer. Probably, a slightly ill-fitting swimming costume revealing stick-thin limbs that could maybe have been sporty but never quite were. A quite uncaring teacher, with little patience for children who couldn't do this all already. 

And now, in the baths as in some other places I pass every week, I like to imagine my adult self beside the skinny nine-year-old, encouraging her, praising her efforts and holding her up when she started to sink. That would have been enough.

As well, it would have distracted that little girl nicely to know about the other side of the baths, behind the life-belt wall. In the next room were the actual baths, where people went to wash.

Belfast was a dirty city, generating grime in the linen mills and shipyards, and a poor one. Houses in this part of the city didn't have bathrooms, and in the earlier years of the century, you came to the public baths instead.

A whole family could make use of one rented cubicle. You were given six inches of hot water, yours to cool and augment with cold. I like to think the children bathed first and grubby Harland and Wolff welder father last, but that might be overoptimistic. You rented a towel and borrowed a cake of soap.

People sang in their bathrooms. There's a great echo. You returned your soap, the towel was laundered in a gigantic basement washing machine, and you stepped back out into the East Belfast evening.

I'd love to have known that. At nine, nose rarely out of a book, I was fascinated by what I'd eventually come to know was social history. I already had a sense of the ghosts that moved around old buildings with their scents and their snatches of song. Here, on the white Victorian tiles, how much more important it would have been to hear Letty Moore from a 1930s McMaster Street singing in the tub, than to listen to vain Miss P's sharp swimming stroke strictures.

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