AS an antidote to the recent bad news about Coseley Swimming Baths (namely, the gas leak and possible closure), STEVE BARTLEY has written the following piece recalling happier times, of forty years ago.
When I was a young lad in the late 60’s me and my best mate John loved Coseley Baths. From the moment I walked through the door and got a sniff of the unmistakable smell wafting up the stairs into the reception, to the time I left for home, usually around 5 to 6 hours later, I loved every minute. Even to this day whenever I smell the baths, which is quite a regular occurrence as I have been a leisure centre manager for 25 years, it takes me back to happy days spent at Coseley Baths.
Me and John would always get up early on the days we were visiting the baths. This gave us time to have an early breakfast. This was very important as every mother knew you should never go swimming after food, as you will get cramp, be sick, or even drown. Looking back over my twenty five years as a leisure centre manager I can’t recall one incident where someone drowned because they had eaten a bowl of cornflakes.
With our trunks wrapped in our towel and stuffed into our duffel bag we would set off for the bus stop on the Birmingham New Road. We were both given just enough money for the bus fare there and back and the entrance money to get in. On a good day we would have a bit extra for a cup of hot chocolate from the vending machine. The hot chocolate was always the temperature of super heated steam. The top layer was a water brown liquid with a faint taste of chocolate and as you drank your way down the plastic cup it got thicker until you got to a layer of brown silt stuck to the bottom. Nowadays, the kids all seem to get dropped off by mom or dad. They all seem to have enough expendable income to not only pay their entrance money but to also purchase chocolate bars, cans of pop, packets of crisps, then goes on the Zombie Death Holocaust video game, a new pair of goggles and a pair of Speedos.
After paying the entrance fee we would go down the stairs to the changing rooms. As soon as we opened the doors the cacophony of sound would start. Kids would be running around, shouting across cubicles or singing at the top of their voices. The lifeguard would be shouting and threatening to ban everyone in sight in an attempt to try and keep some sort of order. Every now and then we would hear a scream from some poor kid who had just been towel flicked.
After finding an empty cubicle we would then attempt to get changed without getting our clothes soaked on the wet floor. This would normally involve balancing precariously on the narrow wooden seat, a task that was particularly hazardous when it came to removing your socks. After placing my watch and my loose change inside my shoes I would then stuff my socks and pants in behind them, a tactic guaranteed to fool any thief! The shoes would then be placed in the basket and the rest of my belongings would be thrown on top. The basket was then handed to the attendant, who always gave the appearance that he would rather be anywhere than in the basket room. In return we would receive a big safety pin with our basket number on.
The next task was to get through the footbath in the shortest time possible making the least possible contact with the freezing cold yellowy brown liquid.
Once we had got past the disinfection trough we were in the pool hall. Now the level of noise reached an ear piercing level with screaming kids, loud splashes and frequent peeps from the attendant’s whistle.
Before entering the water we would dip our hand into the pool to test the temperature. The decision then had to be made whether to lower ourselves in, slowly prolonging the agony, or to dive straight in and endure the sudden shock.
Once in the pool it was time to see how far we could push the lifeguards before they blew the whistle. Everyone knew the rules as they were clearly displayed on the posters around the poolside. No running, no spitting, no shouting, no bombing, no smoking, no petting, no splashing, no shoving, no ducking, etc, etc.
The no petting sign was very cute with an amorous couple touching heads surrounded by little hearts and butterflies. I had no idea what it meant.
The only rule from the list that I can remember not being broken was no smoking. This is not surprising really when you consider it’s difficult to keep fags dry tucked inside a pair of trunks. Having said that, it was common to see someone having a pre or aprs swim smoke in the changing rooms. The spectators on the balcony could smoke themselves dizzy.
The no splashing rule always confused me as I always assumed that anyone using the pool ran the risk of getting wet.
As for the other rules there were kids running around the side of the pool, kids tucking up into a ball and bombing inches from and sometimes on top of their mates, kids shouting at the top of their voices, kids shoving and splashing, and kids were being ducked left, right and centre. Looking back I’m sure that there was quite a bit of the petting going on too but I never saw hearts or butterflies floating around anyone’s head!
We never actually did much swimming. We would usually bob around in the shallow end. Most of the kids gathered in the shallow end, bumping into each other and annoying parents who were holding smaller kids or trying to teach their offspring to swim. We were in for a proper rollicking if you ever splashed the ladies who had perfected the art of swimming width after width without getting their hair wet. Some of the older ladies wore rubber bathing caps that were covered with garishly coloured rubber flowers that made them look like they had an upturned hanging basket on their head. There was always at least one swimmer who would be counting off the lengths, head down, goggles on, like a human torpedo taking out anyone or anything that got in his way.
Every now and again we would venture into the deep end. This was scary, it always looked a darker blue, always felt colder and it appeared to be bottomless. We would always take care to avoid the kamikaze divers doing running jumps from the top board. The only safety system that seemed to be operating to avoid anyone being hit by a top board diver was the diver shouting down to his mate at the side of the pool "All clear?" and on thumbs up from his mate he would launch himself into thin air. We would hang on to the side of the pool and after taking a big breath we would throw our arms above our head and try to sink to the bottom. I never did manage the fourteen feet drop but I would bob back up to the surface and tell my mates that I had touched the bottom.
The top board at Coseley Baths towered over the deep end of the pool. I gradually worked my way up to jumping off the top board after cutting my teeth on the springboard and the second board. I can remember that when I was on the top board I not only looked down on everyone in the pool but also on the spectators sitting on the balcony. I would edge towards the end of the board with my toes gripping the concrete surface. After taking a big breath I would step off the edge trying to stay in as vertical a position as possible. If I didn’t keep all my body parts in line the impact would really hurt and my belly, back or arms would immediately turn red and my skin would sting for a long time afterwards. Sometimes a diver would get it spectacularly wrong and there would be oohs and aarghs from other swimmers as they imagined the pain that the poor soul was feeling.
A belly flop from the top board was no fun for the diver but it really amused me and my pals, especially if the diver had made sure that he had waited long enough on the edge of the board to ensure that enough people were watching. The real heroes were the top board divers who would do handstands on the edge of the board before launching themselves into space.
We would usually take a coin into the water with us and spend hours retrieving it from the bottom of the shallower parts of the pool. In our minds we were Jacques Cousteau diving for ’Zee trezures of zee deep.’
Eventually, red eyed, wrinkly and white fingered we would get out of the pool to go home. After getting changed back into my clothes I would try the hair drier on the wall of the changing rooms and on the odd occasion it would actually work! The hair dryer was a green box with a metal mirror on the front that had no reflective properties at all. Hanging from the box was a rubber tube that resembled a green elephant’s trunk. Using this was a bit like Russian roulette, the hot air would either blast from the tube like it was coming out of a jet engine or it would emerge with all the blowing power of an asthmatic hamster! When it was working well it would result in hairstyles that Worzel Gummidge or Bread’s Freddie Boswell would not have been seen out with.
We would then be faced with the biggest decision of the day. In our pockets we would have just enough money for the bus fare home. We now had three choices. Do we ride home on the bus or do we walk home and spend the money on a cup of tea and a round of toast from the cafe? Do we walk home with a bag of Black Jacks, Penny Chews, and Pink Shrimps off the four-for-a-penny tray from the shop across the road from the baths, or do we walk home and buy a bag of chips from the chippy in Roseville? Invariably we would always choose to spend our bus fare on toast, sweets or a bag of chips. By the time we reached half way home, somewhere near to Woodcross School, we would be shattered and greatly regretting the decision to walk home, but it never stopped us from doing the same thing over and over again.