On October 10th, a group of about a dozen interested people, including two members of the Bishopston Society, was shown around the development site of the old Bristol North Baths. For nearly an hour, we were given a guided tour of the building by the on-site managers of Chatsworth Homes, the developers of this project.  It proved to be a fascinating visit. We were told about the overall plans for the building and it was explained how it will incorporate a community health centre, pharmacy and hydrotherapy suite. As we walked around the empty pool that takes up much of the floor area, and peered into the gloomy stripped out changing rooms around the sides, it was difficult to envisage the successful conversion of the architects’ vision on paper into the reality of a modern, state of the art health clinic. 

The over-riding problem faced by the architects and developer is the requirement to preserve all the Edwardian features of this Grade 2 listed building. This means that the main walls which are of glazed brick, internally, cannot be in any way modified.  Thus there is no possibility of using modern insulation materials on them or of inserting new windows or doors into them. However, both on the ground floor, and at the height of the first floor (yet to be constructed) the sections of recently tiled wall between the areas of glazed brick are going to have large windows cut into them so that a lot more light can be brought into the building. The original cast iron pillars that line either side of the pool supporting the old viewing balcony, as well as the decorative wrought iron railings running along the length of the balcony, have to be retained and absorbed into the new structure. Similarly, the main entrance doors and the foyer with its recently revealed original decorated floor cannot be structurally modified.  They will therefore, in conjunction with the striking red brick and Bath stone frontage, remain as a very obvious reminder of the building’s Edwardian ancestry to everyone who comes to use the new health centre.

The building was designed originally before the First World War and construction began in 1915. It included a laundry integrated into the back of the building which required its own 120 ft chimney - a very distinct local landmark - for the elimination and dispersal of smoke and gases from the copper boilers used to heat the water for washing large quantities of clothes. However, before the Baths was completed, the building was commandeered by the government and used during the latter part of the war as a site for manufacture of aircraft wings.  Only in 1922 was the building finally opened as a public swimming bath. Even then, because it was unheated, it remained open during the summer only and each winter became temporarily converted into a public cinema and dance hall.

The initial invitation by Chatsworth Homes to see the site before any significant changes have been carried out is now to become a regular monthly event so that we can follow the progress of the project.  By next month’s visit, the company hopes to have completed the basic work of concreting the main floor area over the deep end of  the pool , leaving the shallow end as a hydrotherapy pool. This will allow the steel frame of the new first floor to be installed, which will be supported by columns sitting on the original concrete side of the pool and bolted to the side walls at a height just above the existing gallery and could be completed within six weeks from now. 

Photos of the Baths, internally, taken on Oct 10th can be seen here:

http://designbristol.ning.com/photo/albums/conversion-of-bristol-north-baths-project

A short video looking at the history of the Baths can be seen at:

http://uk.video.search.yahoo.com/play?p=Bristol+north+baths+%3Dyoutube&tnr=21&vid=&l=29&turl=http%3A%2F%2Fts2.mm.bing.net%2Fth%3Fid%3DU.4647571982713129%26pid%3D15.1&tit=Bristol+North+Baths

I would like to thank Kevin Batt, managing director of Chatsworth Homes for organising these visits and also thank him and his staff for taking the time to show us around and answer all our questions so expertly.

Simon Randolph