Giving our heritage a sporting chance

SIMON Inglis hails from Birmingham, lives in London, and is best known for his encyclopaedic knowledge of football stadia from Blackburn to Brighton - but that doesn't stop him knowing a lot about Ipswich and its swimming pools.

SIMON Inglis hails from Birmingham, lives in London, and is best known for his encyclopaedic knowledge of football stadia from Blackburn to Brighton - but that doesn't stop him knowing a lot about Ipswich and its swimming pools.

As a champion of Britain's sporting heritage he's taken a close interest in the town's open-air Broomhill Pool, a listed lido built in the late 1930s for £17,000. Puddles apart, it's been dry since the end of the 2002 season, but campaigners hope they will soon win their battle to see the bathers return.

Broomhill is just the kind of place Simon wants to see saved. The Played in Britain initiative in which he is a prime mover champions the cause of threatened buildings whose influence cannot be weighed in simple bricks and mortar. It's a collaboration between English Heritage, the Malavan Media creative company of which he's a director, and some of the country's leading experts on sporting heritage.

The author is in Ipswich on Thursday, December 7 to give a talk as part of the council's Ipswich at Play project. The subject of Broomhill is bound to feature: partly because its history is included in said exhibition, and partly because Simon plans to call in beforehand at the Sherrington Road lido, as well as the Fore Street Pool - an evocative facility built in 1894.


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“We're doing a book next year on indoor swimming pools, called Great Lengths, and Fore Street is one that will be featured,” he explains. (Not that the Victorian building is under threat, we must point out.)

Highlighting the importance of historic buildings accounts for many miles. The night before speaking to the EADT, he addressed a public meeting in Birmingham to rally support for the listed Moseley Road Baths - returning to West Hampstead at about midnight. Such engagements are commonplace. “I'm a veteran of pubs and clubs and rooms above swimming pools,” he jokes, while nursing a cold that can't have been helped by the late night and all the travelling.

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“The basic issue is this,” he explains, while jingling some feline biscuits into a bowl to stop his cat meowing.

“We've got this wonderful sporting heritage in this country and we've given all these sports to the world. We've got such a rich stock of interesting buildings but there's a serious danger future generations will look back and, when it comes to analysing what we've done for sport, they'll say 'Why was it in the second half of the 20th Century and the first part of the 21st Century that we neglected it: that we let it rot away?'

“That is not to be anti-modernisation, because the guys who built Fore Street Baths, the people who built Broomhill Pool, were modernists; they were people who believed in the future.

“Just as in the same way there is room for old churches and new churches, old houses and new houses, we just feel the best of our sporting heritage should be re-evaluated; not necessarily preserved at all cost, because life moves on. We in the 21st Century have different demands - but it is striking how often Victorian and Edwardian swimming pools actually answer the needs of people today in ways that are often better than more modern pools.”

For example, there used to be separate pools for women and men - something generally phased out after the 1914-18 war. Now, he says, there's a growing demand for female-only sessions: sometimes for religious reasons, but generally because a lot of women simply prefer it.

Another point: many modern pools have their changing areas separate from the pool. “When you're a parent with a child, it's actually much more sensible to have a cubicle that's by the pool, as the Victorians did.

“You can keep an eye on things: it's easier to staff; you don't have to have CCTV keeping an eye on potential mischief going on in the cubicle areas. Parents prefer it.

“It's funny how something that was looked down upon as a relic of the Victorian age actually chimes with the needs of modern society.”

Simon's on a roll. Look at bowls clubs, “under threat in many places and derided as old men's marbles. But there are something like 600,000 active bowlers, so it's not a minority sport. If you took away those bowls clubs there would be large numbers of older people who had nowhere to go for gathering socially.”

Many bowling greens and similar facilities have been lost - turned into housing or car parks.

“Sports clubs are part of the social fabric of this country. It goes far beyond the training of Olympic champions and has a much deeper cultural resonance than trying to get a gold medal. They have a hugely civilising influence,” he argues.

It's not just about sport; it's about our core as Britons.

He cites an 1801 quotation from Joseph Strutt, the Derbyshire textile manufacturer, social reformer and philanthropist: In order to form a just estimation of the character of any particular people, it is absolutely necessary to investigate the sports and pastimes most generally prevalent among them.”

Simon says: “We hate uniformity. If you compare a modern continental sports stadium with, say, Portman Road, which has been developed piecemeal over different generations and using different architects, Ipswich Town's ground has a real character to it.

“The modern generation of stadiums are built as a whole. And we've never really done that in this country until recently.

“Look at town centres: where is the planning? It's evolved over hundreds of years. It's no accident that there are medieval backstreet alleys in cities such as York and Brighton called The Shambles. We do like a bit of shambolic surround! If you look at the places we like to visit, they're higgledy-piggledy. They're not necessarily planned.

“Cricket is a good example - or British racecourses: they're a hotch-potch, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. That character doesn't exist so much abroad. It does in the Anglo-Saxon world - you'll find it in Australia and New Zealand - but you won't find it so much on the continent. Things have to be much more orderly.

“We like to live in Victorian homes that we can bash around to suit our needs, rather than uniform, high-rise living. Why do we do this? And not the Germans and French who are equally sporty? It's something deep in our psyche.”

He says Britons were adept at codifying games - laying down rules and regulations - “and then re-exported them around the world as a package that could be played and understood anywhere”.

Lawn tennis is one example. The French had been playing it since at least the 11th/12th Century. Our fingerprints are even all over the Olympic Games: Greek in origin, but the rules and organisation are based around Victorian athletics meeting, he points out.

What is it about us that makes this little island in a corner like to set down rules, and not Italians, say? The surprising answer to that is that we essentially became this nation of codifiers because we liked gambling.

“If you want to hold a cricket match and people are gambling, it's got to be a level playing field. You have to have an agreed number of players per side, you've got to know when it's going to start and finish, so you can have a genuine bet.”

The first activity covered by rules and bets was cock-fighting, in the 1700s, he says.

History and a sense of place are crucial to knowing ourselves, Simon argues.

“Generally, we walk street patterns laid down in medieval times. We live our daily lives in an historic environment, and my feeling is that if you can understand that, there is a better chance of understanding yourself today.

“So Played in Britain, you could say, is not about sport at all: it's about British history.”

Is it financial greed that threatens to wipe over the sporting traces of where we've come from?

“That's one aspect, but a lot of it is simply down to changing fashions. Sport is prey to that. For example, in the Edwardian period every town was building roller-skating rinks. At the moment, everyone's building fitness centres, with treadmills and running machines.

“I can guarantee that in 10, 20 years' time they will be redundant. People will laugh at them in the future: 'Look at those people! They could have been out walking, but they chose to run on this machine. Not only that, the machine was using electricity, rather than generating it! Why didn't someone connect those machines to the building so they could at least have powered the lights?'

“You've got your core sports, and people imagine 'We'll always be playing football, won't we?' Well, I bet the Romans sitting in the Coliseum in the year 200 said 'It doesn't get any better than this.' And 300 years later it was gone.

“Medieval knights would no dobut have said 'Look how the technology's improving. Horses are getting faster; the armour is getting lighter; and crowds are getting bigger.' Then it's gone.

“Our national sport in the 17th Century was bowls! So who knows where it will move on? Unless you understand your history, it's much harder to deal with the future.

“Football, rugby, cricket, lawn tennis, water-polo, national hunt racing: sports we've invented or re-exported around the world.

“But why isn't the whole world playing baseball? The obvious reason is we had an empire at the time mass communications started, and it was happenstance. We built the railways, and we took football with us.”

Simon Inglis's illustrated talk is on Thursday, December 7, at Gallery 3, Ipswich Town Hall, from 7pm-9pm. Admission is free. People can turn up on the night, or book via Ipswich Museums Service on 01473 433550. For more information, call Ipswich 433544 or email ruth.gillan@Ipswich.gov.uk

THE appeal of sports stadia has long gripped Simon Inglis - but it's only relatively recently that he realised quite how early he was bitten by the bug.

He was into his 40s when he discovered some old school books in the attic. Some of the compositions, written when he was about six, used phrases such as “double-decker stand” and “floodlights”. “I was surprised to find out that it stretched back quite so far,” he says.

Simon was born in 1955 and started supporting Aston Villa in 1962. He studied architectural history at both A-level and at university.

“Being a hardened Aston Villa fan, I would travel around the country and visit a cathedral in the morning and a football ground in the afternoon. I scouted around for any books about the history of football grounds and I couldn't find one; approached a publisher - this was when I'd started as a young freelance writer in 1980. We did Football Grounds of England and Wales in 1982, and honestly didn't see that as a career; it was just another subject I was interested in.”

But it struck a chord with people. “I'd love to say this was a bit of inspired genius on my part, but it was just sheer luck that it was me that happened to come out with it.”

So what is it about sport and architecture that goes to the heart of his soul?

“I think, without wishing to become too pompous about it, or without going too deep into the psychology, there are some people who have a very heightened awareness of different things in their life. It might be colour, it might be food; it might be movement, if you're an athlete, for example.

“In my case, I'm just very conscious of space and my environment. I love to walk. I love just being in places and smelling them, and feeling the wind on my face. It doesn't matter if it's hills, mountains or water. Just being out there. And I think the built environment is like being in a big stage set. It's endlessly fascinating.

“My wife and I, we can think about nothing better on a Sunday than to just walk around London. It's the best free entertainment you can get. You never know who you're going to meet, what you're going to see.

“I think the great thing about sport in this respect is that it acts as a connection between people, places, the built environment and the natural environment.

“If you were going to analyse me further, you'd say I had a bit of a thing about turf and bricks! Turf and buildings . . . the juxtaposition. I love cloisters. You could say I've got a Secret Garden syndrome: what lies behind the wall. I don't know where that comes from, and I'm not particularly bothered about analysing it - just like I don't analyse why I like certain kinds of music,” he laughs.

“Anybody who's been in a cricket ground or a football ground or an old swimming pool understands that automatically. It's not just about the activity taking place but the space itself. It's part of the human condition.”

Another chuckle as he explains how Britain, with its temperate climate, is brilliant at growing turf.

“There is nothing more beautiful in nature than the juxtaposition of green and brown. It works well on the eye, with a bit of blue sky. You can't beat it!”

Is he ever accused of being an “anorak”, or does he find many people share his delight of sporting architecture?

“It's a very British facet that anyone who is passionate and knowledgeable has to be put down. If that's how it is, that's fine by me. I think we have a very healthy attitude in this country towards that sort of thing.

“I don't care if I'm called an anorak or not: as long as people buy the books and show an interest!”

THE sporting books continue to flow from the pen of Simon Inglis, editor of the Played in Britain series published by English Heritage.

The newest is The Best of Charles Buchan's Football Monthly (£16.99, ISBN 1 90562 4042), which pulls together images, articles and snippets from two decades of football nostalgia. Launched in September, 1951, the magazine sold 250,000 copies in its heyday. It formed a popular boys' club, featured a Dick Barton-style cartoon, ran monthly short stories and covered all the soccer topics of the day.

An earlier book in the Played in Britain series honoured the life and unsung work of Scottish engineer Archibald Leitch, who died in 1939. Simon says Leitch's grandstands for clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester United, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea, Aston Villa and Glasgow Rangers defined the distinctive look of British football grounds during the first half of the 20th Century.

Other books for English Heritage have been Played in Manchester - the architectural legacy of a city at play - and A Load of Old Balls - a celebration of the various balls used to play sport over the centuries.

Details of the Played in Britain organisation and books published under its banner can be found at www.playedinbritain.co.uk

THE Broomhill Pool Trust, a charity seeking to preserve the Ipswich landmark, aims to make a presentation next month to the borough council. This will highlight the findings of a feasibility study, largely paid for by the council, that could hold the key to the pool's future.

The trust hopes that a robust business plan will attract £1million from the council towards the costs of reopening Broomhill.

When it opened in the spring of 1938, the lido had a grandstand for 700 spectators, underwater floodlighting, and changing areas for 70 women and 108 men. The water was heated and filtered.

In the 1970s and '80s up to 2,000 swimmers flocked to Broomhill. The pools glory days, and its present plight, are summarised in another Played in Britain title: Liquid Assets.

Simon Inglis says Played in Britain does not promote the saving of buildings for the sake of it - “but just for the sake of a few pence here and there, we mustn't end up losing what we've done so well.

“Broomhill is a very, very good example. It's a wonderful piece of design; it's a wonderful asset; and to lose it . . .”

If we do, he says, someone will come along in four or five years and say that Ipswich needs a lido. Building a new one would cost three times as much as repairing and maintaining “one that is loved, has a tradition, and has an established usage”.

“If it were a disgusting old place that was falling to bits and was horrible - of course, you'd say 'No, I don't want to go there.' But Broomhill's not like that.”

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