I didn’t learn to swim until the final year of Junior School when I was eleven years old. I remember that we all looked forward to moving up to class seven so that we could have an hour or so away from the class room and be taken to the public baths in Regent Street in Rugby.
Rugby had two public swimming baths, the indoor pool and an outdoor Lido on Newbold Road but we didn’t go to either very often. Once one summer we went to the Lido when I was about seven and as we stood by the water’s edge, just for a joke, my dad said “go on then jump in” and I did. I don’t think he expected that because firstly we were standing near the deep end and secondly and perhaps more importantly I couldn’t swim and after going under several times he had to jump in himself and pull me out!
I remember that episode being rather a shock but everyone else seemed to find it amusing.
The odd thing about swimming is that is like riding a bike – once you can do it it is so very easy but learning how to do it seemed to take several weeks.
Anyway, the hire bus would turn up shortly after morning assembly and we would line up with our duffel bags and make our way to the worn out old coach that would take us the two mile twenty minute journey into town along the Lower Hillmorton Road.
The Regent Street Baths were a functional brick built building that had been built in the early 1930s and opened in 1932. Public baths in the 1930s were built for sanitation and public health and hygiene so they weren’t the sort of place that you would go to enjoy yourself as you would today.
We clicked one by one through the iron turnstile, through the double doors and then the boys filed away to the right and the girls to the left to their respective changing rooms. On public swimming days there was a locker room with an attendant who handed out wire baskets for our clothes but on school swimming lesson day there was no need for this so everyone found one of the individual cubicles that ran down each side of the pool and being careful not to drop our clothes on the wet floor we changed into our swimming costumes, hung our clothes on a peg and then went to the side of the pool and stood rather nervously and self-consciously and waited for the swimming instructor.
This was Mrs Dick who, rumour had it, had once been a professional swimmer and had represented England but I’m not absolutely sure if that was true or not. Mrs Dick used to frighten us, she had very short cropped hair, wore shorts and a track suit top and had a silver whistle hanging around her neck and when she gave the first shrill blast that was the signal to go down the steps into the icy cold water.
There was always a sign up which made some preposterously exaggerated claim about the temperature of the water but I swear it was hardly ever a degree or two above freezing. To be fair it must have been a devil of a job keeping the water room because they didn’t have pool covers in those days and the baths were a big high building with an awful lot of glass so any heat must have just gone literally through the roof.
I don’t really remember the process or the sequence for learning to swim but I do recall that it seemed to involve a lot of wasted time hanging on to the rail at the shallow end and trying to lift our legs out of the water to see if we could float. I think they may even have taught us how to tread water before they progressed to anything ambitious like strokes. Once we had overcome our fear of the water and could bob about a bit then we progressed to leaving loose of the rail and going to the centre of the pool with a polystyrene float to hold on to as we got used to kicking with our legs and one by one over the weeks everyone (well, mostly everyone) started to swim unaided and the first test of competence was coming up.
This was being able to demonstrate that we could swim the colossal distance of a whole length of the swimming pool – thirty-three and a third yards. We started at the deep end underneath the shadow of the three stage diving platform and set off one by one towards our target at the shallow end. Some failed the first attempt and had to be fished out of the water by a long pole and some just gave up and had to be thrown a polystyrene float but I am fairly sure that I did it at the first attempt and a few weeks later was rewarded by being awarded a certificate that was signed by several important civic dignitaries including the Chairman of the Baths Committee and the Town Clerk of Rugby Borough Council although looking at it again now the Town Clerk’s signature appears to be a stamp rather than genuine.
After the lesson Mrs Dick would blow her whistle and we were sent to the showers to warm up and to try and get rid of the smell of chlorine that stuck like glue to our hair and bodies and then it was back to the bus and the journey back to Hillmorton County Junior and Infants School.
It was a good thing to learn to swim because after that I was allowed to go the swimming baths with my pals David Newman and Tony Gibbard on a Saturday morning and we used to catch the R76 bus into town and visit the Regent Street Baths by ourselves. During the summer we wanted to swim outdoors but by now the Newbold Road Lido had been demolished and turned into a waste transfer station so we used to cycle eight miles to the Daventry outdoor baths instead. Once or twice we swam in the canal near David’s house but quite frankly, when I think about it now, that was very dangerous and not such a clever thing to do and if we’d ever been caught by our parents we would have been in an awful lot of trouble that’s for sure!
The Regent Street Baths stayed open for about forty years and then in the early 1970s they were replaced by the Rugby Sports Centre in Whitehall Road Park and with no further use they were demolished and the land turned into a public park called Jubilee Gardens where there is a statue of Rugby born poet Rupert Brooke.
The Rugby Leisure Centre later became the Ken Marriott Leisure Centre in memory of one of the Councillors and that only lasted forty years as well as it was closed in 2013 and demolished to make way for the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Leisure Centre.