FROM adoration to disgust, joyfulness to sadness – it’s the Bournemouth leisure site that’s evoked almost every emotion among locals over the years.

Before the town’s controversial IMAX building came and went, the much-loved Pier Approach Baths provided residents and visitors with a hub of entertainment.

Here we track the evolution of the site, from much-loved swimming baths, to one of the most hated buildings in the country at one point.


1. Original baths were built on the site in 1838.

The first baths to arrive on the site were built in 1838 before being replaced by another building in 1887 that marked Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

On March 23, 1937 – almost 84 years ago – Bournemouth opened its new swimming baths.

Bournemouth Pier and approach pictured from the West Cliff circa 1870 and in 1977. Pictures from the Peter's Collection.


2. Pier Approach Swimming Baths cost £80,000

The new building cost a whopping £80,000 – around £5.5million in today’s money – but was much more than just a swimming pool.

The baths also packed 40 private baths, a Mikvah bath for the Jewish community, Turkish baths, a sunbathing facility, terrace and solarium with sunray lamp equipment.

There were 100 changing cubicles with 336 clothes lockers and 20 slipper baths or each sex.

The pool itself measured 100ft by 35ft and had a depth ranging from 3ft to 6ft 6ins, with a 12ft diving pool.

Bournemouth Echo: The Bournemouth’s Pier Approach Baths in use. Picture courtesy Bournemouth Libraries Heritage Collection.


3. The baths proved an instant hit

Unsurprisingly, the new facilities became an instant hit among the locals.

People in need of a clean would regularly visit, as well as those wanting to enjoy a dive or swim.

The baths even became used as a hub for competitive swimming.

Despite bathing figures being down in 1950 due to a hot summer and refurbishment, the pool still managed to attract 104,036 people.

Bournemouth Echo: Bournemouth’s Pier Approach Baths. Picture courtesy Bournemouth Libraries Heritage Collection.


4. Live entertainment became a regular attraction

Bournemouth was the first holiday resort to present a water show for a full season, the likes of which quickly worked their way into the hearts of locals and tourists alike.

Although originally bought to the resort by George Baines, they were presented for many years by Leon Markson, then by his widow Stella.

Former diving champion Alan Roberts took the reins in the late 1960s with his first show being Tales of King Arthur.

The performance included John Crease singing and dancing as King Arthur; Mavis Linter as Guinevere; local magician David Medina as Merlin; and international swimmer Denise Wilson leading the “aquabelles”.

Bournemouth Echo: The Aquabelles from the aqua show in May 1969.

George Baines later returned to the venue when he took the aqua show a step further by combining it with a circus.

The spectacular ran for five years until Baines’ death in the winter of 1981-82, at which point the show was taken over by his widow Vera and Sid Brooks.


5. In the 1980s, the bath’s popularity began to decline.

In a preview of the 1982 aqua show, the Echo wrote “More gaily and colourfully decorated than ever before, the Pier approach Baths, Bournemouth, opens tonight with Aqua Circus Big Splash ’82 – and if this is to be the last show at the Baths, it emphasises what a delightful show Bournemouth will be without in future.”

This scepticism followed an announcement from Bournemouth council confirming that they intended to sell the building to help fund a new conference and leisure centre on the West Cliff.

But the aqua show managed to come back for one last year in the form of  Big Splash ’83 and was featured in three episodes of ITV’s peak time show Game For a Laugh. The TV show included Matthew Kelly splashing around in the water.

Bournemouth Echo: The busy scene of the baths with the aqua show in progress in the 1950s

Indoor swimming in Bournemouth was to move to the soon-to-open Bournemouth International Centre where it found a home for the following 20 years. Anyone remember the wave machine?


6. The baths suffered a terrible fire and closed in 1984

The Pier Approach Baths were broken into in June 1984 and the control box set on fire. An ex-employee with a grudge was jailed for two years following the incident.

The baths' doors were closed for the last time later that year and their manager of 11 years, Mellor Hellawell, quit the following January after declining other council jobs.

“From the day that the BIC was decided on, I was more or less on my bike,” he said.Bournemouth Echo: Pier Approach in 1986 without the baths.


7. The transformation of the site into a leisure complex was not a quick one

It was in May 1986 when the bulldozers moved in, at which time the council had no firm plan other than to use it temporarily as a car park.

It had however been reported in the Echo in June 1985 that the venue was “expected to be transformed into a new entertainment or leisure operation in the very near future”.

Despite taking years for development to begin, the site was often referred to as the town’s “golden acres”, ideal for leisure. The area was perfect for the wet weather attractions the resort needed.

Work began in 1998 on the Waterfront complex – a chapter of the site’s history most people would sooner forget.

Bournemouth Echo:

Construction of the Waterfront complex underway in 1998.


8. The Waterfront structure took shape in 1998-99

Murmurings of an IMAX began to surface in 1988, originally causing excitement that such cutting-edge cinema technology could be coming to the town.

Outline planning permission was given in 1996 for leisure facilities to include a casino, bars and rides as well as the IMAX cinema.

The Waterfront building went up in the winter of 1998-99 – but as soon as the bare bones of the structure were put in place, the complaints began coming in.

Bournemouth Echo: Image from PictureGalleryModule_ID:3133969

Bolt tightening ceremony at the Waterfront in 1998.


9. View of Poole Bay had been blocked by the Waterfront

Locals were outraged that the view of Poole Bay, as seen from a car heading down Bath Hill towards the Pier Approach, had been blocked.

For more than a decade, people had enjoyed the fabulous and unobstructed view, and thousands were unhappy with the development.

The building was widely disliked before it had even been completed.

Bournemouth Echo:

The Waterfront complex taking shape in 1998.


10. The Waterfront opened in 1999 – but without IMAX

The scheduled opening date of July 1999 came and went. Fast food restaurant KFC, Jumpin’ Jaks nightclub, and a small number of businesses opened later that year.

The public finally had a chance to see the cinema’s 62ft by 82ft screen and hear its incredible sound system in March 2002.

Bournemouth Echo: The Waterfront building in 2002.


11. The IMAX had its problems

Running the IMAX was expensive.

Films had to be purchased rather than rented and Hollywood movies hadn’t begun shooting in the format with any kind of regularity.

Films on offer were more demonstrative pieces that included breathtaking shots of mountain climbs or space missions.

Each of the films was under an hour long and were not changed particularly frequently.

From January 2003 the IMAX would remain shut for four days a week out of season, until it closed down altogether in March 2005.

Bournemouth Echo:

The empty IMAX in 2010.


12. The Waterfront closed in 2010

In the wake of IMAX closing and many other businesses in the building flowing suit, Bournemouth council bought the Waterfront for £7.5million in 2010 and evicted the remaining tenants.

When the building was razed to the ground in 2013, it was swept away to make room for an outdoor performance area.

The first performance that summer was given by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra which, somewhat ironically, consisted of film music

Bournemouth Echo: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performing the music of John Williams in 2014.


13. It has since become an adventure golf course

Since then, it has been transformed into an adventure golf course, which officially opened to the public in 2019.

The Smugglers Cove 18-hole golf course at Bournemouth seafront has each hole named after a landmark location or prominent person connected to the Bournemouth area.

There is a Howe’s Bunker after the former Cherries boss and Gullivers Chine in recognition of the many narrow ravines that run to the Dorset coast.

Bournemouth Echo: