When I first moved to West Dorset in 1982 as a newly-qualified journalist on the Bridport News, one of the stories that began to gather momentum was the development of Bridport Leisure Centre.
The land at Skilling Hill Road was gifted in that year to Bridport and West Dorset Sports Trust Ltd—a non-profit making charity incorporated in 1975—by the late Tony Palmer, who was head of Palmers Brewery. He went on to grant a 50-year lease to the Trust for the leisure centre buildings and land at a peppercorn rent.
It was the perfect site for expanding sport in the area because it was already home to the town’s rugby, cricket and squash clubs. Its associations with sport went back to the 19th century when a cricket square was laid out on Brewery Fields.
Obtaining planning permission for the site now known as Watton Park, the Trust sold it to a developer in 1984, using the proceeds to build the original leisure centre in 1986. The current centre was created in 1992.
Many local businesses and individuals gifted money or equipment for the buildings. The old cricket pavilion was demolished and the cricket and rugby clubs were provided with a bar and club room in the new building.
In the 1980s, campaigning began in earnest for the town to have its own heated swimming pool. For a community so close to the sea—and an often dangerous sea at that—a heated pool for public use was high on the list of local priorities.
People who learned to swim before there was ever a pool in Bridport will tell you how they were dangled from a harness into the harbour at West Bay. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
The BACit group—many of whom were local mums—were vociferous and successful in their fundraising campaign and did not let up in their efforts. As a result, West Dorset District Council financed the building of a pool at the leisure centre and handed it over to the Trust to run.
In 1993 Bridport Rugby Club completed the construction of the Pavilion attached to the southeastern flank of the sports hall and handed it over to the Trust as part of the centre, reserving the right to use it for the club’s own activities.
In 1995, the Trust was gifted the Hyde Real Tennis Court in Walditch by the late Joseph Gundry. On 13 June 1998, HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, formally opened the court, which is now operated by the Hyde Real Tennis Club under licence from the Trust.
The centre now provides a range of recreational facilities and activities for the people of West Dorset, with the overall aim of enhancing the community’s quality of life. Fitness classes, walking netball and football, swimming lessons for hundreds of children, floodlit pitches—the centre is a hive of activity, adding to the health and wellbeing of the local population.
The three major areas of activity for the Trust at Bridport Leisure Centre continue to be the fitness suite and classes, swimming and courses and activities. There are approximately 120 instructor-led sessions per week, with a wide range of activities on offer to people of all ages and abilities.
Swimming pools are popular—as Beaminster residents who have just lost their swimming pool and the people of Chard, who are about to lose theirs, will tell you. But they’re expensive to run.
At Bridport, the ‘dry-side’ element of the Trust’s operation cross-subsidises, to an extent, the ‘wet-side’.
The town council provides the leisure centre with a grant and a management fee continues to be given to the Trust by the district council for the services it provides, as part of the 1992 agreement. But when West Dorset District Council disappears and is absorbed into a new, unitary authority next April, what happens then?
The Trust hopes a long-term resolution can be agreed so that the leisure centre can carry on enhancing the community’s quality of life. It’s in the interests of us all.
Margery Hookings is a former editor of the Bridport and Lyme Regis News. Now a freelance journalist with a weekly column in a national magazine, she became a trustee of Bridport Leisure Centre in 2017.
A swimming pool for Bridport
In 1983 three parents, Jocelyn Pardoe, Lenschen Laffin and Jenny Doy, circulated a petition to find out how many local people wanted an indoor swimming pool.
At that time the nearest public indoor pools were in Dorchester, Weymouth or Yeovil and the current local caravan site pools had yet to be built.
The strength of local opinion was shown clearly as the petition was signed by 5,500 in just two weeks. Bridport had a population of about 8,000 at the time and it was estimated that the catchment for the pool was about 25,000 people.
The petition was presented to Bridport Town Council, then a small committee was formed to raise funds, lobby local councils and keep alive the enthusiasm of local residents. This small group of volunteers gradually expanded as fundraising ideas multiplied but at that stage no one could envisage the ten very busy years to come before the dream would be fulfilled.
It was decided to aim to raise £100,000 as a realistic sum to present to West Dorset District Council in the hope they would allocate the majority of the building costs. As some people in the locality felt that the group, known as BACit, may not achieve that goal, a simple record of all donations over £10 was set up with the promise that all donations would be returned if the pool was not built.
It took ten years for that joint community effort to raise funds and lobby for a 25 by 13-metre pool with additional learner pool.
The target had been to raise £100,000 pounds locally yet by the time the pool was finally built in 1994 an amazing £185,000 had been raised in the community.
The main capital came from West Dorset District Council with a further amount from The Sports Council and local residents Sue and Tony Norman, who were instrumental in a further substantial donation being made. Near the pool entrance is a foundation stone made by Karl Dixon which incorporates the BACit logo. It was provided by committee member Mary Bailey in memory of her father, George Elliott, who did much to promote swimming in the area.
Olympic medal winner Sharron Davies formally opened the pool on 4 September 1994.