CRYSTAL PALACE POOL
Ledrington Road London SE19 2BB
020 8778 0131
Opening times: really good until you’ve got there and a gala is on and they’ve shut the whole pool. It’s only not a long way if you live near by. So, CHECK ONLINE, or call.
Added value: you can scare a whole school party in the communal changing rooms
Minus points: I was told they play piped music here. Is it true? It may be a red herring. If it is true, it's an abomination. What fresh hell is that?
Someone said to me how much they hated this pool because of the building it’s in. That person is a fool. I think it’s fantastic, and I must be right, because it’s Grade II listed. The National Sports Centre was built in the mid-60’s and while I accept that not everyone loves that era of brutal modernity (I use that term as if I know anything about architecture. I don’t) I’m from the Midlands, so I feel right at home in bleak and hard.
Before you start, give yourself a shiny if you manage to get there without inadvertently wandering into the park. Clue: if you see dinosaurs, you've gone wrong. This is a huge behemoth of a place, the frontage could be an airport, all glass and outstretched concrete wings. Quite daunting. I feel small. The building contains massive amounts of concrete, de rigeur at the time of its conception, in huge v-shaped pillars holding up the roof, in bars across glass, in steps and walkways. That rough unpolished grey sits beside masses of polished dark wood; there are textural walls of unfinished stone, the cold new metal of internal lifts and then, as contrast, the unnatural red of plastic tip-up auditorium seats.
Once you’ve got to the changing facilities, they’re pretty nice: clean and modern and very spacious. Good showers, particularly if you’re short. Modern block benches to change on and a lot of empty space in between - actually, they’d be great party changing rooms. There are a few cubicles down one end but I think the expectation is that you change communally, and as you may share the space with school parties, see ‘added value’ note above. What is the etiquette here? Say I’m changing, prancing around naked, maybe putting on a bit of post-swim lotion. In comes a school party. They stare. Am I supposed to shriek and dive for the cubicle? I’m not a flaunter, but hey. It’s a pool. Nudity is involved. And I was here first.
After your changing room party, the fun is over. Don’t come here for a laugh. There isn’t much nattering in the shallow end because there’s no shallow end. It’s an atmosphere of calm, studious intent, an air of seriousness . This is a high temple of sport, where people take their swimming seriously, clocking up the miles or doing interval training with a sharp eye on the very visible lane timer. I feel small, again. It’s wide and long – 50 metres - with lots of lanes, so you can find your pace and not be overtaking or overtaken much, but they are thin lanes, so I felt aware of narrowing my stroke when a swimmer went past on the other side. To emphasise the seriousness, there are no rails for hanging on to at the ends, which means if you’re not a tumble-turner, you just have to cling on to the lane dividers, perching on narrow ledges. That certainly keeps you moving. I mis-handled the end of every length, clutching in the air for a rail that wasn’t there.
The amount of light the pool gets makes a qualitative difference – there are two huge walls of glass giving out to the sky, and when the sun shines, it sparks across the water. The roof, miles away, is a series of wooden v’s, presumably, and successfully, part of the sound design. In this bit of the complex, there’s also a small pool for babies, and a separate diving area – I always have a little peek to see if that diving boy is there, piking away, but I’ve never seen him. And apparently there’s another teaching pool somewhere. I was there in the day and it felt quiet: the water never getting that distracting noisy churn, and in such a cavernous space, noise carried up and away, so I toiled in peace. And to this peace, they’ve added piped music? Yeurch. I’ve been told it’s a different story at night, when it becomes treadmill swimming: head to toe, no stopping, no making your own pace.
You don’t have to be an Olympian to swim here, but loads have, which gives it a certain frisson of sporting glamour (slamour? Glorty?). If there's someone looking particularly brilliant, they could be in Our Team! But don't let that intimidate you: anyone can look like they might be an excellent swimmer, with the 'right' costume and serious goggles. Even I have a 'potential excellence' face for occasional use. And once I'm in the water being my normal shit self, nobody has ever stopped me to say 'how disappointing. I thought you might be excellent, but you're not as good as your appearance led me to believe'. People, me included, tend to watch fantastic swimmers; no one is waiting for you to fail. We're all just pleased to be in the water, taking part, aren't we? The reverse applies to running – you might look a roasted beetroot after ten minutes, but you can always tell people you’ve just run to Battersea from Camden. They won't know.
Piped music, though. That’s badness. That should stop.