Every Monday morning at 10 am sharp, we would line up two abreast in the school playground. Each with a grotty COOP carrier bag tucked under their arms, and like little tin soldiers we eagerly awaited the signal to go over the top and into battle.
The loud shrill from the teacher`s whistle echoed around the playground of the Holy Name Primary School and signalled the call to action.
In strict military fashion we marched across the school playground and out through the gate, before heading towards Upper Brook St, then turning onto what is now Hathersage Road, Longsight, Manchester, England.
A twenty minute yomp weighed down by snorkels, flippers and terry towelling swimming trunks yet we always made good time. A strange sight we must have seemed to the people we passed along the way. The sight of little Gordon wearing a Thunderbird hat and a swimmers facemask brightening up many an onlookers day.
It is hard to convey just how much that weekly visit to Victoria Baths meant to us all. Looking back on that time I now realise how privileged I was to be a small part of its history. For it is truly an iconic part of the city, a heritage dating back to the days when Manchester was known around the world as “King Cotton”.
Turning the corner and onto the High St, one was greeted by the impressive sight of Victoria Baths imposing Victorian exterior. Walking up those stone steps as so many had done before us when the baths first opened its doors in 1906, one could not fail to be overwhelmed.
As we walked through the large wooden entrance doors, teacher would walk up to the ticket office with its large stained glass windows and wrought iron turnstiles to collect our tickets. I still remember the echoes and how they carried through the entrance hall, the faint smell of chlorinated water, which grew stronger as we passed through the turnstiles and then hurriedly made our way up towards the main swimming pool.
Once inside the pool, the enormous skylight and the intricate ironwork structure that supported it were breathtaking to behold. On either side of the swimming pool were the changing booths, the sky blue paint had begun to peel away in large strips, revealing the white undercoat beneath.
We usually shared these cramped changing booths, sometimes three at a time. All of us vying to be first into the water. I was usually last one into the pool, and being the nervous swimmer that I am, would always opt for the shallow end.
Instructed the portly swimming attendant who kept his beady eye on us. He was always dressed in a white short sleeve shirt, white trousers and plimsolls to match. Sporting a rather impressive RAF squadron leader moustache , and with a shiny metal whistle hanging from around his neck. I could almost imagine him in the heat of The Battle of Britain, winding down the window of his Spitfire, blowing his whistle and bellowing out orders to crashed german pilots to refrain from splashing in the English Channel.
I would grab one of the polystyrene swimming aids he would throw into the pool and nervously try to make myself look at home in the water.
The brown terry towelling swimming trunks my mother had bought me would, once wet, act like a dead weight. They absorbed water like a sponge, and before too long began to sag, requiring me to constantly readjust the drawstring to prevent them otherwise from falling off completely.
Like small ducks in a large pond, we swam around in the water, the girls wearing rubber bathing caps with a floral design not too unlike the plastic tablecloth my mother had at home.
Mind you beneath the surface of the clear chlorinated water there lurked many hidden dangers for the unwary bather.
Thin strands of a suspiciously yellow nature, would on occasion be seen spreading out their yellowy tentacles, floating up to the surface, ensnaring the unsuspecting bather and then disappearing with a single gulp.
The more proficient swimmers amongst us kept to the deeper waters, denizens of the deep otherwise known as The Sharks.
Back at school they were perfect models in the classroom, teachers pets who could not put a foot wrong – but out there in the deep end of Victoria Baths they transformed into predators of the depths.
Somebody would shout and that was the signal for the boys in the shallow end to jump out of the water before they struck.
Prowling silently beneath the surface, they would swim under a floundering boy, confiscate his swimming trunks and then cast them out of the pool. An indignant Squadron leader would then blow his whistle, instructing the offending pupil to climb immediately out of the water, collect his swimming trunks and get dressed.
1967 was a long time ago and the shark infested waters of Victoria Baths have long since run dry. Still, Victoria Baths has against all odds stood the test of time. These days the Baths are a popular film venue for many well known programmes in the UK. ….the most famous of which being Peaky Blinders.
So if you should chance to be in Manchester on a Wednesday afternoon with an hour to spare, I can heartily recommend a guided tour of Victoria Baths……… for you never know who you might bump into?