Freezing water, fun and friendships at the old Municipal Baths
"Up there on the seats I felt drawn to both the black above and the blue below… Being a spectator didn't suit me. I wanted to be down there with the competitors, diving into the water, part of the action."
It was young Val Toye's first look at a swimming race, at Palmerston North's public swimming pool in early 1960. Val's cousins, Victor and John, were competing there.
Today, retired teacher Val Mills (nee Toye) recalls on her writer's blog: "That night, a swimmer was born."
On Monday, her book, Down at the Baths, the story of the Palmerston North Municipal Swimming Baths (1917-1966), was launched at the Palmerston North City Library.
It's almost exactly 100 years since the first sod was turned on the pool's Ashley St site, although the baths didn't officially open until December 1, 1917. Today, that spot is the Farmers' carpark.
If that first glimpse of starlit swimming was a forerunner to Mills' career as a competitive swimmer, it was a Memory Lane story on the baths' history, about four years ago, that prompted her urge to tell the personal stories of this vanished, but once-iconic public amenity.
Already the author of an earlier book, West End, the Best End, Mills started a painstaking journey of research and discovery that mined nuggets of humour, stories of drama and delight – and, sparkling among the facts and figures, memories of swimmers, coaches, custodians and competitions.
Mills was a member of the Palmerston North Swimming Club until the baths' closure in 1966, but continued her swimming interests for some time after that.
An avid reader and writer growing up, as an adult Mills began to write children's stories.
She's a member of the Writers' Hub – a group under the umbrella of the NZ Society of Authors – that encourages and supports local writers. She's also organised various writers' workshops and won a short-story prize in 2014.
The baths book was meant to be a memoir at first, but turned out to be a much bigger project.
"The more I dug into it, the harder it seemed" she says. "At first, I didn't think I could really do it. But I had so much support all the way through."
The hardest part, she says, was moving from more creative writing to a historical writing style, and research.
"At the start, I had to hold on… I sat my old swimming coach on my shoulder – in my mind – and he kept me working at it."
The archives of the city council, Ian Matheson collections, Manawatu Heritage and Papers Past were goldmines of information, as well as personal and friends' memories.
Funding support from the 2015 Earle Creativity and Development Trust enabled Mills to work with mentor and editor Lucy Marsden. The Printery at Massey University designed and printed the book.
Down at the Baths is an entertaining read, with lots of anecdotes, especially from the 1960s.
There was the Brylcreem penny vending machine, for boys to slick their hair down after their swims; the girls who walked across The Square to the baths at lunchtime and went back to work wearing "Beatle wigs to cover their wet hair", the cold water of the initially unheated and unfiltered baths, and the swimmers' sore red eyes when "maybe too much chlorine was poured into the pool".
Mills and former teammates today recall being in awe of their contemporary, Freyberg High School alumnus and breaststroke swimmer Vivien Haddon, who represented New Zealand at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, winning silver and bronze medals. Haddon, now Vivien Boyd, was at this week's book launch.
By 1966, the baths had become inadequate and outdated. They were closed and abandoned until their demolition in 1968. Meanwhile, the Lido Aquatic Centre had opened next to the Esplanade.
Some quick facts from the book:
• Long ago, its future site housed the town morgue, which was moved away to the Terrace End cemetery because of complaints from passers-by.
• The bricks from the old baths' exterior walls are buried under the concrete floor of the Farmers car park. They were used as fill for the baths tank that once held water.
• The baths' 1917 opening-day plaque is now in the Lido foyer in Park Rd.
• There were four successive custodians at the baths. A flat for the custodian and his family adjoined the baths building. The first custodian was Donald McLeod, grandfather of today's Palmerston North bookshop proprietor Bruce McKenzie.
• Down at the Baths is dedicated to the last custodian, popular swim coach Jim Woodhouse.
Val Mills says: "Everyone has their own story about the baths."
Judging from the buzz at the book launch, the stories live on.