The 12 year restoration journey of The City Baths, Newcastle

Cait Read has been an instrumental part of a twelve year community campaign that has saved and seen the restoration of The City Baths, Newcastle and now its Turkish Baths.  Cait shares the journey and the learnings in a fascinating look back at this incredible story of community action.

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of The City Baths, Newcastle?

Originally called Northumberland Baths, and later Newcastle City Pool, the current City Baths on Northumberland Street, Newcastle, opened in 1928, replacing earlier baths on the site from 1838.

The Art Deco building contained two swimming pools, Turkish Baths and a manager’s flat.  It was Grade II and II* listed in 1992 for its historical and architectural importance. As a civic building it also contains the City Hall concert space.  Built in a time before soundproofing, you can often hear bands sound checking next door!

Newcastle City Baths under construction

When the decision was made to close The City Baths what was the community response and how did you become a part of this response?

As part of sweeping austerity measures across all public services in the city in 2012, the Baths were threatened with closure by owners Newcastle City Council.  This mobilised community response, from the competitive swim teams that practiced there, families and individuals who used the pools, and regulars at the Turkish Baths.  Protests and a swim-in were held to demonstrate how well used and loved the Baths were.

I had a great appreciation for the Baths, having swum, sauna-ed and relaxed in the Turkish Baths regularly when recuperating from a broken ankle.  I got involved in the campaign in the early days utilising my marketing and media relations experience.

Once the building had closed it was our group, Save Newcastle Turkish Baths, who kept the dialogue going with the Council and led the campaign to save the building, recognising that the Turkish Baths were one of its most irreplaceable features, being one of only 13 then still operational in the UK (currently now only 10).

Cait Read in the ladies pool hall pre-restoration

From the formation of Save Newcastle Turkish Baths what first steps were taken?

I put a callout out through the campaign’s Facebook page for 21 people to support the nomination as an Asset of Community Value and was overwhelmed by the number of responses and the level of support.  This led me to calling a public meeting at a local pub, which many of the founding members of the group attended. We also received advice and a £10k pre-feasibility grant through Locality.

The key was keeping public awareness going, gaining extensive national and regional media coverage, and demonstrating the level of support to the Council, who were convinced that the building would never re-open as a pool again.

Attending my first Historic Pools of Britain event was inspirational, meeting other campaigners from pools across the country facing the same challenges, and many now running as successful community ventures.

The Turkish Baths pre-restoration

The other thing that we learnt was to talk to everyone, from the Amateur Swimming Association to the North of England Civic Trust, who provided us with reports and information about the building. We approached Jesmond Community Leisure, another local pool which had been community run since the 1990s who helped us write an outline business plan.

When the Council put the building on the market, our initial tactic was to ensure that at least the Turkish Baths would be maintained as part of any future development, given the City Council’s view that the building reopening for swimming was unlikely and that the scale of investment needed to re-open the whole building was beyond our group’s capacity. We asked the Council to make any enquirers aware of the campaign group and our desire to work with them.

Pre-restoration balcony detail © Michele Allen

Can you tell us more about the role of Fusion Lifestyle?

Only one company approached us, which was Fusion Lifestyle, who to our delight wanted to maintain the building as pool and leisure centre. They say we interviewed them rather than the other way round as we wanted to ensure that whoever ran the building shared our ethos and would maintain it for community use.  We liked Fusion’s charitable aims and their approach and agreed to endorse their bid. We were jointly interviewed by the Council with Fusion becoming the preferred contractor in 2015 taking on a 125-year lease.

Fusion originally committed £5million to the restoration and after 5 years opened the Pool and Gym as The City Baths in late February 2020, just a few weeks before Covid lockdowns hit.

The ladies pool hall restored

Save Newcastle Turkish Baths has changed its name as the campaign evolved can you tell us about this and the role that the organisation has taken?

Once the restoration work was well underway, and an opening date in sight we realised we had achieved our original objective to save the Baths (although the Turkish Baths were to be opened as phase two). We felt that there was still a role to ensure accessibility to the building, to celebrate its history, and to ensure that Fusion were accountable to our agreed mutual vision. We received a small grant from National Lottery Community Fund to broaden the membership of the group and were relaunched as The Friends of The City Baths with a new visual identity and website.

The new gym complex and fitness suite

From where you started to now seeing the Turkish Baths not only re-opened, but also restored can you reflect on this and the learnings that you have made?

None of us anticipated it would become a 12-year campaign, nor to see the building and Turkish Baths open and close several more times due to Covid, and temperature issues!

Do you have any advice for other community groups?

Talk to as many people as you can, from individuals to organisations, as information and offers of help came in many varied forms.

One key take-away is how helpful other community led baths are. I had been cautious about asking neighbouring Jesmond for help as we could be considered competition. However, the then manager explained that their aim as a social enterprise was to encourage more people into swimming and fitness, not to corner the market in swimming provision in Newcastle, and so generously helped us. In turn we’ve helped other baths and campaigns.

The restored Turkish Baths

Finally, how was it experiencing your Turkish Bath after restoration?

Fusion have done a thorough and sensitive job restoring the Turkish Baths from ensuring that they are really hot, to restoring the floors and surfaces, adding a few modern touches like better showers and ambient lighting to give a more serene feel.

Find out more

The Friends of City Baths website includes a visual timeline and more on both the history of the Baths and the Turkish Baths, and you can connect via Facebook here.  You can find out more about The City Baths as it is today here (including how to book a visit!) and the work of Fusion Lifestyle, which is a registered charity, here.

We will be organising a future HPB event to go behind the scenes and find out more about the restoration work at The City Baths…watch this space for more details!