For more than 120 years Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool has been welcoming bathers of all ages – but it was very nearly lost to the town.

It’s 1901 and, at Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool (known as the ‘Baths’ in those early years), a row of dapper chaps is posing for a box brownie. As they lean into the camera – distracted for a second from the gala taking place in front of them – they look every inch town worthies: smartly besuited, with bowler, boater and bow-tie between them.

Are they descendants of the businessmen who, along with Lord Bathurst (he, a donation of land and a generous £25), helped finance these baths some 30 years previously?

Who knows…

Their image remains; their caption has faded out of history.

Great British Life: The 1901 gala at the Cirencester Open Air Swimming PoolThe 1901 gala at the Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool (Image: Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool)

Were they to be transported forward to 2023, they would undoubtedly be strangers, lost and disorientated, within much of their beloved Cirencester today. But were they to revisit the swimming pool itself – snuggled away off Cecily Hill - they could almost retake their original seats.

‘There are very few differences,’ agrees Jennie Hale, one of the pool’s 11 trustees. ‘It’s still the same footprint. We don’t now have the old wooden changing rooms and bathing huts. The diving boards have gone, from a health and safety point of view.’

But much else is the same, from the original Forest of Dean coping stones that surround it, to the peace and tranquillity that define it.

‘I was thinking about that only the other day,’ says fellow trustee Val Wheeler. ‘There’s very little vehicle access – only really room for one delivery truck – which makes it very quiet. It’s on the edge of the [Cirencester] Park; and it’s sheltered from the wind. A bit of a suntrap.’

Yes, people go there to swim: 36,000 visits last season. But they also go there to hear the birds sing: ‘Exercise, fresh air, peace and quiet; open to the sky. It’s somewhere you can tick a lot of boxes.’

There’s a lot else those worthies would recognise – such as the commitment of the people (nowadays all volunteers) who run it. Jennie is in charge of fundraising. Recently, they raised money to install solar panels. Her very first project, three years ago, called for £9,500 for a hoist: particularly important for the ‘inclusive’ swims of a Sunday (and extra during the holidays), where those with self-declared needs have their own, less-peopled session. The campaign was a revelation to Jennie. ‘I was used to sending off 20 applications and letters and maybe getting one reply. With the pool, the response was – and is always - amazing.’

Great British Life: The seasonal pool began as a place in 1869 where people could washThe seasonal pool began as a place in 1869 where people could wash (Image: Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool)

The warmth the town feels towards its heritage pool is reflected in the collegiality between the 50-or-so volunteers. They do everything from pool maintenance to providing a tuck shop; they run a fundraising bookstall in the Corn Hall each week; staff the gate; clean; tend the beautiful flower planters; and manage the website and archives. Val feels huge appreciation for the endless help given by David Wright – known as the Pool Angel - responsible for maintenance. After new changing rooms had been built in 2017, Val was standing in the rain on gate-duty. ‘There’s a stone desk built for the entrance, but with no shelter. So I thought to myself (the limit of my imagination): We need a gazebo.’

David caught her measuring up.

‘’I’ll build you a roof,’ he said to me. Then, in time for the next season, he’d done it. It’s perfect.’

But it’s more than that; were it not for the dedication of volunteers, the pool probably wouldn’t still be here. One of the earliest continuously open seasonal pools in the country, (‘We thought we were the oldest but there is another that’s a tiny bit older’), it was begun in 1869, expressly for hygiene reasons. The town of 6,000 inhabitants needed somewhere (in the absence of general running water) to wash. Heaven knows what the water was like towards the end of the week when the 100,000 gallons were emptied and replaced (spoiler: end-of-the-week sessions were reduced to 2d from the normal entry price of 6d); but the natural water which helped fill it (and still partly does) was of the finest, softest quality.

Since those early days, the pool has known drama of different kinds. Barbara Chamberlain (in one of a few fascinating pieces on the website) trawled Gloucestershire archives and found some cracking tales. In the 1870s (according to the esteemed Wilts & Gloucestershire Standard), spectators enjoyed visits by Professor Beckwith and his ‘Beckwith Frogs’ family, famed for their ornamental swimming, including young William, the ‘third best swimmer in England’.

Great British Life: Health and safety has seen the back of these diving boards Health and safety has seen the back of these diving boards (Image: Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool)

The hoist has been a godsend. ‘We’ve got a lady who comes regularly because she had mobility problems getting in and out of any pool. The hoist has enabled her to exercise free from stress; she saw a marked improvement after just a few months.’

One mum asked if the pool could think about getting a full-sized changing table for her child with special needs, as the ‘baby’ one was too small. It goes without saying that they obliged.

‘The next season, we had this delightful letter from her saying, ‘I asked if you could, and you’ve only gone and done it!’’

That was kind of them, I say.

‘But it’s such a joy to do!’

That demonstration pales into insignificance when considering the 1912 performance of Miss Florence Tilton of Gloucester, who drank a bottle of milk, ate a banana, and even did some sewing under water.

Real-life dramas were less entertaining for local folk. In 1908, Cirencester Urban District Council took over the baths, installing a hugely welcome heating system that at least took the famed iciness off the water. (The healthiness of swimming was ‘boosted’ by a kiosk selling, among other things, tea and cigarettes.)

But it wasn’t all plain sailing – or swimming. Complaints about cleanliness and rowdy behaviour sometimes surfaced, as Jennie notes. One story she often tells is of an elderly lady in Cecily Hill who was disgusted to see lads skinny-dipping in there. She demanded the police put a stop to it at once.

When the local constable called round, he was puzzled not to be able to see the baths from her window. ‘You have to stand on that chair,’ she told him.

Great British Life: In the 1970s Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool faced closure – but local swimmers put together a petition against the plansIn the 1970s Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool faced closure – but local swimmers put together a petition against the plans (Image: Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool)

In the 1970s, the baths faced further changes when substantial repairs were needed. The council – now thrilled with the indoor pool it had built – decided enough was enough. The old-fashioned pool had had its day.

A formidable group of volunteers vehemently disagreed. They lobbied to take it over, and got their way – for a peppercorn rent – eventually gaining charity status. Many of those volunteers, just as Jennie and Val did, had learned to swim in the pool, carrying their rolled-up towels from the town’s schools in long crocodiles each week.

‘It was cold and grim in my school days,’ Val laughs.

So what made her return?

‘I do ask myself that! Actually, the heating has improved immensely – the water-temperature is now around 26 degrees and we have hot showers.’

The two of them also taught their own children to swim there: ‘Even though I couldn’t swim much. Neither of mine realised that. I kept my feet firmly on the floor,’ Jennie – still a reluctant swimmer – admits.

Great British Life: Evening at Cirencester Open Air Swimming PoolEvening at Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool (Image: Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool)

This year, the pool will be open an extra two weeks by popular demand – from May 10 until September 17. During those months, every age, from babies to octogenarians, will be using it. And loving it. Amazingly, it has never been closed (bar a few maintenance essentials). Not even during Covid, when those incredible volunteers got out their cleaning equipment, sorted safety rules, and kept going throughout: ‘Providing a sanctuary in a mad world!’

No wonder Cirencester values it so warmly.

‘One elderly gentleman last year said to me, ‘I’m not sure if I’ve bought myself a season ticket or not,’ Val says. ‘I looked it up and assured him that he had. ‘That’s all right, then,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to swim. I just buy one every year to make a donation’.’

· Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool is at Riverside Walk, Thomas Street (between Cecily Hill and The Mead), GL7 2EF, also accessible via Barton Lane. For swimming times – including category swims – booking and prices, visit

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