Victoria Baths, Manchester: A most glorious building with a tale to tell. It opened in 1906 as a ‘water palace’ for the people of Manchester, and no expense was spared.
It housed three swimming pools, Turkish baths, private baths and a laundry. The main gala pool has a viewing gallery and many of the changing rooms running both lengths of the pool have their own stained glass windows.
For 87 years it was a place where people met, swam, bathed, played or watched water polo (the players were ‘like gods’) or attended swimming galas. In 1993 the grade II listed building was closed to the public. The cost of upkeep and the backlog of repairs meant the city could no longer afford to keep running or maintaining it.
The boarded-up building fell into a poor state. The paint and wallpaper were peeling. Some plaster crumbling. But the building itself remained intact, and the gorgeous Edwardian tiling, wood panels, metal work and stained glass held their original beauty.
In 2003, Victoria Baths won BBC’s Restoration, bringing in £3m of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. So far a total of £5m has been spent partially restoring the building. The aim is to make it a functioning leisure facility for the public, but that is still in the future.
Currently the building is open to visitors from April to October. It hosts one-off events, including an annual public swim in the gala pool. It also makes money from venue hires, and as a film and TV location.
I paid my first visit to Victoria Baths on a rainy Saturday in June 2019 for a Weekend of Words – a three-day writing and literary festival; the first one the venue had held.
I attended one of three morning writing workshops being held on the Saturday: Creative Non-fiction, with Ebba Brooks and Adam Farrer from The Real Story leading the session.
Creative non-fiction is described as ‘true stories told using the toolkit of fiction writing’. It’s more popular as a genre in America, where one of its best-known contemporary practitioners is David Sedaris.
I was introduced to creative non-fiction as a ‘thing’ by Kate Feld at last year’s Altrincham Word Fest. Kate, herself an American, leaned on the traditions of writers like EB White to demonstrate the form in that session, reading from his essay, ‘Death of a Pig’. “I just wanted to keep on raising a pig, full meal after full meal, spring into summer into fall.”
The Creative Non-Fiction workshop lasted two hours. We did some freewriting to start, then dispersed around Victoria Baths to write about the sounds, feel, taste, and smell of the building; the idea being to rely on senses other than sight. Then it was back in the room where we’d started – the committee room – to pick out nuggets from that writing to put into a mind map.
After that we did five more minutes of freewriting on anything that took our fancy from the mind map. We finished up the session writing a piece using an object to indirectly tell the story of a person, similar to the technique used by Alisa Cox in this piece, ‘I never had a mother‘.
I chose something that my teenage daughter likes – she’s always been one for pretty curiosities. I was happy with it and even read it out for the group when they asked for volunteers.
When I got home I told my daughter I’d written a piece about her. ‘Ahhh, that’s nice,’ she said with a smile. Would she like to hear it? ‘Mmm, might be a bit awkward,’ she said, wrinkling her nose. ‘Maybe in a few years time.’
I’m returning to Victoria Baths and Weekend of Words tomorrow. My other daughter is performing with her school, and there is also a book fair featuring a number of the north west’s small presses. Today has been a day of discovery, and I don’t mind if I get to share it or keep it to myself.
Real Stories is a project and journal devoted to promoting the form of nonfiction writing in the UK. You can find out more about them here, and submit your writing: https://therealstory.org/
Victoria Baths is located at Hathersage Road, Manchester, M13 0FE
All photos © Victoria Sorzano