13th September 2012

Throw yourself into the deep end

Discover hidden waters with the Wild Swimmers movement and take a plunge into Manchester’s watery history at the Victoria Baths

Having taken its place on the Daily Mail sidebar of shame, wild swimming, previously perhaps the preserve of a few brave geriatrics and alternative arts students, has now gone mainstream. From the same company who brought us Secret Cinema, Secret Swimming has popped up to cater for those who are seeking something slightly less stressful than early morning front-crawl at the Aquatics Centre.

After launching at Wilderness festival in a mass skinny-dip, the secret swimmers are facilitating and documenting swims across the country in seas, lakes, reservoirs and more. Following this first chilly plunge in Lake Superior at Cornbury Park, they are looking to expand their network across the country to draw people with the thirst for ‘adventure and a love of wild waters’ together to bathe in uncharted waters.

As the swimmer and author Susie Parr noted in her talk at Voewood Literary Festival this summer, bathing is enjoying something of a moment, perhaps, she suggested, as a reaction against our consistently controlled modern lives. In her book, The Story of Swimming, Parr documents her swims, weaving her own story in with those of others who swam long before her, resulting in a compelling and visually stunning read which explores shifting attitudes toward water, drawing reference from art, poetry and print. It is not merely a coffee table tome – the prose is elegant and warm and the attention to historical detail and accuracy impressive. This is, of course, because this is as much personal record as complex social history, neatly segueing into literary and historical reference, drawing together the strands of her narrative. And we have a very real example of this right on our doorstep…

The Victoria Baths on Hathersage Road, which opened in 1906, was built to be a ‘water palace of which every citizen of Manchester can be proud.’ The story is as problematic as a contemporary grand design, with the build expensive and time consuming, but on completion the Victoria Baths boasted the most up to date swimming technology and state of the art leisure facilities. But the three elegant green-tiled pools, having hosted events as diverse as bowling tournaments and blind-dating evenings, fell into disrepair and in 1993, the building was closed down by the local council. Not willing to see the Baths become derelict, The Friends of Victoria Baths formed to protect and preserve the building and began the task of restoring the structure to its former glory.

Now, the building opens every Wednesday to anyone who wants to look around, and hosts a diverse range of events which engage socially and creatively with the both the local and artistic communities, staying true to the original vision of it as a space to benefit all – including students! The Victoria Baths is not only somewhere to while away an afternoon, but could be the venue for your own exhibition, event or performance. Having hosted student-led projects in the past, this extraordinary ‘water palace’ is dedicated to providing support and space to emerging artists and performers. Coming up are Life Drawing Classes, a two day independent Beer Convention, a Vintage Fair with a selection of furniture and clothing – and maybe even a vintage swimming costume which you could wear the next time you think you might fancy doing some wild swimming of your own.

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