YESTERDAY saw the end of an era as the Castle Leisure Centre in Bangor closed its doors for the last time.
Since it first opened its doors in 1972, the complex, which boasts four swimming pools, has witnessed coming-of-age moments for thousands of swimmers as generations of parents taught their children to swim.
It also witnessed the flourishing of talented swimmers including Bangor woman Julie Parkes who went on to compete at the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984.
Before the leisure centre – where facilities include a deep diving pool and two shallow learning pools – opened, the only place to swim in the town was the outdoor Pickie Pool.
Centre manager and long-term employee Stephen Conn said that although staff are excited about the new leisure centre – which includes an Olympic length 50m swimming pool –some were so sad to see the old complex shut that they couldn’t face coming into work for the last day.
The new leisure centre, a short distance away, will open on March 23.
Mr Conn said many of the staff had worked at the centre for a long time, which gave a friendly feel. Former workers at the centre returned yesterday to say their final farewells.
“People have been sad. I wanted to come for the last day to close the doors for the last time,” said Mr Conn. “But we’re all very excited about the new centre. Everything in it is so huge and new.”
Long-term user, BBC Ireland editor Mark Simpson, was among the others having a final swim, along with his eight-year-old daughter Joy. He is a regular swimmer at the centre every Sunday with his family.
“As a local boy, I learned to swim here when I was about six or seven and so did my three daughters,” he told the News Letter.
“I grew up in the era where there were only three TV channels and no iPads. This was the main thing to do as a kid. This was the main pool for everyone from Bangor, Holywood, Donaghadee and Groomsport, so that’s people like Eddie Irvine, Rory McIlroy and Colin Bateman.”
Northern Ireland has long been behind the rest of the UK and Republic with no 50m swimming pools, forcing serious swimmers to have to train elsewhere to get that important long-course training.
While Magherafelt has a pool which boasts a 50m section, Bangor will be Northern Ireland’s first 50m competition standard swimming pool,
Bangor swimming club’s honorary president Fred Kerr said his team will be the envy of Ulster with their 50m pool.
The veteran coach said the club was very excited to start using it.
They will continue to train in the old leisure centre before the new pool opens on March 23. Mr Kerr said since the Olympics they had found more and more youngsters had become interested in learning to swim.