Bath is full of secrets that its residents keep well. Decades ago I rented a basement apartment on one of his Georgian terraces, the basement of which led to a seemingly endless system of pressurized underground passages. At night, I lay awake near the center of this UNESCO World Heritage site, listening to local teenagers screaming and snarling from its stony depths.
When I learned that Britain’s oldest open-air bath had been largely derelict and overgrown on the outskirts of Bath for almost 40 years, I wanted to see this mystery too. Grade II listed Cleveland Pools first opened in 1817 and later in the 19th century was run by the eccentric Captain Evans, who had a pet baboon, threw spectacular gala parties and apparently wowed onlookers by jumping into the pool from a great height, wearing a tall hat to protect his head. After recently being used as a trout hatchery, restoration efforts began in 2003 and the pools are finally set to reopen to the public on September 24th.
I head east from the historic downtown past the Lovelywash Launderette. Beyond, down an alley from a residential street and alongside the River Avon, lie the pools.
At first glance and at the end of a long heat wave, their waters look unstoppable. Unfortunately, they’re not quite ready for swimmers when I visit, but David Barnes, the architect at Donald Insall Associates who led the renovation, shows me around.
“The wonderful thing about pools is that they’re so simple, clean and unassuming,” says Barnes. The humble Georgian cash register, caretaker’s cottage and beautifully curved cloakroom terrace have been restored, all in that honey bath stone. Hot showers and a kiosk were added. “They are very hidden in this isolated place. This, of course, was also their downfall, the reason why they were neglected.”
I’m curious. How did this place even build a cold water pool? After all, Bath is full of natural hot springs and was founded by the Romans in the 1st century AD as a thermal spa. Later, wealthy Georgian society spent months of the year in the warm waters of Bath. This explains the neoclassical terraces – they were often built as short-term rentals to accommodate this boom in sprawling luxury wellness retreats in the early 19th century. But who would swim here?
“The Avon at Bathwick has always been a popular bathing spot for the ordinary working people of Bath,” says Barnes. “But the people who swam in the river did not conform to polite Georgian society.”
The nude bathing was particularly terrifying. The Bathwick Water Act of 1801 prohibited it, but by 1815 swimming in the cold water had become a national craze, recommended by doctors, especially for chronic ailments. There were several people bathing in the Avon and something had to be done. A public subscription was established; 85 private donors applied.
John Pinch senior, architect and opportunistic property developer, was engaged (Babington House in Somerset is also his work; so are parts of Bath, including dreamy Sion Hill Place and tranquil Cavendish Crescent). Pinch accepted the work pro bono, hoping that the new pools would serve residents of the planned expansion of the city, from which he hoped to profit. He was unlucky: the length and cost of the Napoleonic Wars ended Bath’s Georgian building boom.
Nevertheless, Cleveland’s “pleasure baths” were cut from the banks of the River Avon and filled with river water. Pinch built crescent-shaped changing rooms next to the main pool, as well as a secluded women’s swimming pool and cabana. Later, a cholera pandemic in the 1830s led to increased demand and bathing in the tepid pool.
In Barnes’ renovation, evidence of the past is everywhere, from the ivy scars in the cottage’s soft bathstone to the original cast-iron panels in the fireplaces that somehow survived. “It’s a very light touch,” says Barnes. “Instead of covering everything up, we tried to express things that were going on before.”
The pandemic, the craze for swimming in cold water – it all sounds very familiar. In fact, the people of Bath used to swim here until 1978, when they opened the city’s recreation center and abandoned it. When the council put the site up for sale, the volunteer-run trust secured a 150-year lease and raised more than £9 million from the National Lottery and Historic England Heritage Fund, among others.
Today, Cleveland Pools has been scaled down, tiled and modernized. Next year, its operators hope to install a water source heat pump, but for now it’s just cold bathing. The perfect Georgian experience.
Barnes likes to think of the city as Bath in microcosm: crescent, water and social history. “And we wanted to keep that connection with the river,” he says. So his team cleared the vegetation to restore the view.
Outside, a cruise ship full of tourists sails by on the river. An “Oooh” is heard. Bath will not be able to keep this secret.
Cleveland Pools (clevelandpools.org.uk) will be open to the public from September 24. Entry costs £6 for adults, £4 for children