the Durham baths: director’s cut

Recently I had the privilege of having an essay of mine published in the Palatinate, the Durham student newspaper. I think it’s some of my best work so far, and I wanted to share it here, along with a bit of the piece I had to cut for length.

My essay is on the old abandoned public baths along the Durham riverside; surprisingly, they are not my first experience of old abandoned pools. While the reflection below is not crucial to the sense of the essay as a whole, it helped me develop my recognition of opportunities I had let go first hand, beyond simply reflecting on opportunities I might have had, as I did with the Durham baths.

the Durham baths as they are in 2021

I am, apparently, haunted by shuttered pools. My undergrad, Benedictine College, once played host to the oldest pool west of the Missouri river (an arbitrary benchmark, maybe, but a benchmark nonetheless). This pool was pitched to me on campus tours, though the tours never took us there because it was out of the way, under the old gym. I brought my swimsuit with me when I moved into my freshman dorm, only to find out the pool had been permanently closed the semester before I arrived. I was deeply disappointed, and pestered everyone who’d been around before me—including the head of operations—trying to figure out why the college would drain it, when it seemed obvious to me that, as far as college amenities go, having a pool was much better than not having a pool.

The college’s line was that the pool’s age meant it required constant maintenance to keep the chemicals balanced and, while everyone said they would use the pool if it reopened, in the last years of its existence, only two or three people went a day. An upperclassman told me they’d always struggled to find lifeguards. Without staff and with an expensive upkeep, it became a burden for the college. Everyone loves the idea of an antique pool—apparently no one actually wants to swim in it. (I admit, there’s a part of me that resists this narrative, preferring to hold a Field of Dreams, ‘if you will build it, they will come!’ kind of optimism, alongside a not insignificant distrust for what university administrations deem necessary when it comes to cutting costs.)

a before and after shot of the pool at my alma mater, courtesy of Benedictine College

I never went to the pool at Benedictine, not even to see its empty contours; eventually it was filled in and turned into a training space for the wrestling team. A friend who went once before it closed said it ‘felt like a relic from a lost era’. Her husband told me they used to play intramural water polo there and that he felt the college missed an opportunity to embrace the legacy of the space. Something about that pool still stays with me as tragic: Benedictine’s new gym facilities don’t have a pool—even though I and many other students lobbied for one, we were told it was too expensive to build. For a time, the college instead had a partnership with the local YMCA so students could swim there, though I don’t know if that’s the case anymore.

I wouldn’t care about these old pools if I didn’t love to swim, of course. I imagine myself living a better life than I have, darting off regularly to the old pool at Benedictine and the baths at Durham—but I often catch myself wondering if I also just like the idea of the old pools; if I, too, would have let them slip away unused if I’d had them in front of me.

As an optimistic postscript: writing this essay about the pools at Benedictine and in Durham pushed me to not make the same mistakes here in Edinburgh; as luck would have it, my local pool is a lovely old Victorian bath, and I swim in it most days of the week.

[P.S. I had a piece of academic writing published last week as well—a short essay on H.D. that is friendly to the uninitiated. If you’re interested, you can find it here.]

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