Here I am aged 2 with my mother's brother, John, at Southport open-air pool
With the arrival of my seventh birthday, the word ‘allowed’ took on a wider meaning. I now had permission to walk to my friends’ houses – even if that meant crossing the main road! I could also go to the swimming pool with friends. I couldn't actually swim yet which is why my birthday presents included a large red and white rubber ring. I'd seen a little of Hans and Lotte Hass’s underwater programmes so I had asked for flippers as well. The flippers they wore seemed to make swimming effortless. Sadly, I couldn't even walk in mine without tripping myself up so they never actually came with me to the pool. The frilly blue and white spotted swimwear that I had requested was too small so it had to be exchanged for something my mother described as a proper swimsuit. She said it was what competition swimmers wore. She may well have been right, but it was a horribly uncomfortable creation made of green wool with crossover straps at the back. When it was dry it was itchy and when it was wet the saturated neckline sank to my middle. It was soon replaced by a yellow bubble nylon costume which may not have been any more practical or comfortable but at least didn't look like something that either of my grandmothers might have worn.
One of the outdoor activities the doctor recommended for my cousin Kate’s asthma was swimming, which was wonderful because the nearest outdoor swimming pool to her house was at Southport – a trip to the seaside! Going there was one of the best treats when I stayed with her family. Southport outdoor pool was an enormous circle of water surrounded by seats so the adults could sit in comfort and watch us flounder about in the shallows. The journey from Kate’s house in Wigan meant several bus changes. Auntie Ciss and Nana laboured to the bus stop under huge panniers of food, drink, towels, spare clothes and rubber rings, but finally, we were installed at the front on the top deck of the Southport bus, swaying to and fro and anxiously surveying the weather. Nana would offer helpful hints that suggested it would be a sunny day. If the sky seemed cloudy she would say ‘So long as there's enough blue in the sky to make a sailor a pair of trousers it will be fine’. Then there was the other infallible fair weather indicator, the status of cows in the fields we passed. If more of them were standing up than lying down, all would be well. Jumping down from the bus when we pulled into Southport bus station was exhilarating. I could smell the salt air and hear the seagulls. The tiny shop in the bus station sold sticks of pink seaside rock with ‘Southport’ printed all the way through as well as tin buckets and spades and flags and windmills for the top of sandcastles. We were at the seaside and the pool was only a short walk away!
As soon as the adults had found seats it was time to get into the water. Kate and I would be wearing our costumes underneath our dresses so we were ready to go. Neither of us could swim so our rubber rings had to be inflated whilst we hopped from one foot to the other. Our swimsuits were bubble nylon and weren’t a great help to novice swimmers. They looked like fabric bubble wrap. Once we were immersed, the pool water seeped into the bubbles and filled them so it was probably a good job we had our personal buoyancies. It was worse when we stood up. The water which had been trapped in the bubbly fabric obeyed gravity and our feet were soaked by what felt like gallons of water. By this time the neck of our suits was somewhere around our middles and we had to heave everything back into its proper place.
When I was at home, our nearest open-air pool was in Bramhall and now that I was seven I was allowed to go there with my friends. Bramhall was nowhere near as big as Southport’s outdoor pool but it had a number of smaller pools. There was the very shallow outdoor baby pool surrounded by tables and chairs with the concrete sunbathing area next to it. Then there were the two indoor pools; the shallow three-foot half-moon shaped pool and the bigger deeper pool with a diving board. The big outdoor pool had the high diving boards and even when the temperature sizzled the water was freezing cold. On a hot summer’s day Bramhall pool was the best place to spend the whole day with a friend.
My best friend from school, Gwen, and I would travel there by bus (as far as the war memorial) and then walk along the private road with the big houses by the golf course; turn left at the end into a road shaded by enormous old trees and lined by even bigger houses. Then there was a narrow path that led off the shady road and down a slope and at the end of a cinder track was the entrance to the swimming pool; the tennis club was just off to the left. The smell of chlorine and the thwack of wet feet running past hit us as we handed over money for our whole day swimmer’s ticket to the person in the wooden kiosk. Inside, near to the entrance was the huge cast-iron mangle with its wooden rollers ready for us to wring some of the chlorinated water out of our costumes and towels at the end of the day. Just opposite the entrance was a set of metal parallel bars set in concrete. Inevitably young lads would regularly slip and fall whilst showing off their gymnastic skills. There must have been some nasty injuries, but there was never any question of the pool owners’ liability for any discomfort suffered. It was a very different age.
We never took food with us, just enough money for our entrance fee which was one shilling and threepence. Any more was for either a Lyons fruit pie or a hot dog with ketchup. If we used our return fare and bought both we had to walk home, which at the end of the day felt like a desperately long way.
Whilst we were learning to swim, we would take the whole day slowly building our courage and moving into ever deeper water from the baby pool to the half-moon pool to the big indoor pool and then to the big outdoor pool getting colder as we went. One day we discovered that by the end of the afternoon the temperature of the baby pool, having been in the sun all day, was like a warm bath. After that we always ended our swim days soaking there before we yanked our feet into wet socks, pulled our clothes on top of our damp suits and trudged home. Sometimes, when we were nearly home, we were too tired even to say goodbye. We just plodded off with a wave when our paths diverged. On hot days when a trip to the open-air pool wasn’t possible, my father and uncle Arthur would stand on our balcony and empty buckets of cold water over me and my friends whilst we jumped up and down and screamed with delight, squealing ‘More! More!’.
There was an indoor pool in the middle of Stockport which we used occasionally in the colder months when Bramhall baths were closed. It did offer forgetful customers swimwear for hire marked ‘Property of Stockport Baths’ on the back but we always took our own. As we handed over our entrance money we were given a numbered bracelet and a matching numbered wire basket with a handle shaped like a coat hanger. Then we climbed the slippery concrete stairs to the balcony of wooden-doored changing cubicles – girls on one side of the pool and boys on the other. Once changed into our swimsuits we bundled our dry clothes and towels into our baskets, handed them to the cloakroom attendant, slipped on our numbered bracelets and once we had yanked our hair inside our horribly tight bathing caps we were ready to swim.
The pool’s opening hours were divided into strict 45 minute swimming sessions so the attendant took careful note of our bracelet numbers and then we were let loose. The hygiene of the water was maintained at a pH of such intensity that a session of swimming turned the eyes pink and itchy, which we assumed was an entirely normal state of affairs. At the end of our 45 minutes the attendant used a loudhailer to call out our bracelet numbers; dawdlers were only warned once and then a severe dressing down followed. Shivering and dripping, we queued up to redeem our basket of clothes and padded off to get warm and dry. The floors of the changing cubicles had small wooden slatted platforms to stand on which meant we didn’t slip over as we dressed, but somehow yanking clothes on to a damp body took so long that some item of clothing inevitably fell on to the puddle covered concrete; even in summer it was a chilly business. In colder weather, the tiny shop in the foyer sold cups of hot Vimto or hot Bovril which did a little to stop our teeth from chattering but as we walked to catch the bus home, the sharp wind on our wet hair and damp clothes often took the edge off the fun.