First published on Wednesday 13 August 2003:
Health ahead of its time
GREAT Western Railway's Health Hydro for its workers was considered revolutionary when it was built 111 years ago with the facilities it provided.
Unlike, some of Swindon historic landmark buildings like the Mechanics' Institute and the Locarno, it has survived intact and still offers a place for leisure, relaxation and treatment. Kevin Shoesmith visited the hydro and discovered it is still popular today
THE Health Hydro serves as a portal into Swindon's railway past.
The building in Milton Road has a rich history, dating back to 1892 and was built for the Great Western Railway workers.
As well as being a place to take a bath and relax after a hard day's graft on the railway, it also housed several doctors, opticians, pharmacists and chiropodists which was then well ahead of its time.
The Great Western Medical Fund, which was launched in 1847, also had its headquarters there.
According to Tim Bryan, assistant manager of the Steam museum in Kemble Drive, workers petitioned their bosses to provide them with doctors and medical care.
"Conditions were appalling with regular outbreaks of cholera and smallpox in the Railway Village. People could not afford to pay for proper health care so they demanded their employees give them it," he said.
Initially bosses paid half towards the fund, with the workers paying the rest. But after a few years it became entirely funded by the workers.
Today, the Health Hydro is just as popular and staff have fought hard to retain its original character and appeal.
In 1987 the building which was still owned by the GWR Medical Fund was under threat of redevelopment but the then Thamesdown Borough Council stepped in and bought it to create a holistic health facility.
Swimming is one of the most popular activities at the centre.
There are two pools, each catering for different levels of ability. The main 33 metre pool has five lanes and is intended for the more serious swimmer. Trainers are on hand to offer tips and stroke analysis.
The smaller 18-metre pool is kept at a slightly warmer temperature, making it ideal for children and learners. It is also available for galas and private parties.
Tessa Farr has worked at the Health Hydro since 1980. Some of her former pupils are now lifeguards.
She said: "It's really good to see the young people stick with it. It's quite satisfying. The pools are both great."
They certainly get 11-year-old Christopher Moore's seal of approval. The youngster from Barnum Court, Rodbourne, said: "I come here about three or four times a week. I go mainly for the lessons. The lanes mean that I can do proper swimming."
The Active Lifestyle Centre is also popular with visitors. Qualified staff are on hand to offer top tips on training programmes.
Advice on nutrition is also available, ensuring a completely healthy lifestyle.
Jamie Cameron, 30, from Haydon Wick uses the gym three times a week.
He said: "I really like using the Health Hydro. It's good that it's in the centre of town, which makes it easy to get to.
"I've been coming here for about a year and because it's nice and small I can just get on with my training."
For those seeking relaxation after a heavy workout, there are the Turkish Baths one of the original features of the hydro.
It consists of two steam rooms, a spa pool, a cold plunge and three interconnecting hot rooms. A large rest area allows customers to cool off.
The natural health clinic offers a combination of therapies acupuncture, massage, osteopathy, reflexology and homoeopathy.
Pauline Mather has practised osteopathy at the Health Hydro for the past 14 years.
But she says customer numbers have fallen over the past few years.
"I think numbers have definitely dropped. A lot of other practitioners have moved in which has made things a bit harder."
For people wanting to unwind, there is the Tranquillity Zone. Fidelma Meehan, a Baha'i coordinator, says it is proving a big hit with visitors.
She said: "More and more people are deciding to give this inspirational experience a go. People range from stressed-out executives to young people.
"Around 150 schoolchildren and tried it over the past two years. It's very exciting to see how young people react to the experience."
The candlelit zone, which comprises of cushions arranged in a circle, is designed to soothe away the stresses of modern life.
She said: "People need a place to unwind from time to time and space to reflect on their lives.
"Too often money and workplace status mean that we forget the important things. The Tranquillity Zone puts you back in touch with yourself and allows you to reflect on true happiness."
People can also come to the Health Hydro for advice. The Swindon Advocacy Movement has been based at the Health Hydro since 1995.
Co-ordinator Diana Thomas, said most of her clients are referred by Social Services.
"We get about eight new referrals each week. A lot of them are people who have problems communicating. We also tell people who have learning difficulties about their rights," she said. The movement is partly funded by Social Services.
There are also two main rooms available to hire for talks, meetings and lectures.
It helped shape the NHS
It is rumoured that William Beveridge visited the Health Hydro in 1947 prior to writing his famous report that would pave the way for the National Health Service.
In May 1847 1,800 men were employed in the GWR works.
In autumn 1847 Daniel Gooch addressed a letter to the secretary of GWR outlining the difficulties facing the workers, pleading with the bosses to remedy it.
In 1878 a man known as Peggy Harris was struck by a passing train, which sliced both legs off. The fund provided him with a pair of false legs then something of a novelty.
In 1887 the Health Hydro's dentist pulled out more than 2,000 teeth.
That same year the Health Hydro's first undertaker set up business
During the First World War the building was used as a hospital.
Former GWR worker Tony Hopkins, 64, who retired in 1987 after working on the railway for 32 years remembers the hydro fondly. He said: "Me and my workmates regularly used the swimming pools there. They were open from about 6am. A lot of GWR workers used to go for a swim before their shift."
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