5 Old Ford Road, Bethnal Green
London E2 9PJ
020 8980 2243
Question: Is this up the road from London Fields lido? Answer: Yes it is.
Question: So why would anyone go here, instead of there? Answer: I don’t know.
YORK HALL. Why do I think of boxing when I say York Hall?
Oh relax, boxing fans, I know it’s one of the most famous venues in the country, I was just joshing. But that, my friends, is my boxing knowledge all used up. I’m spent. And I promise not to do that writery thing of using a boxing pun at the end, to tie this review up all neat.
YORK HALL. A plaque tells me it was opened in 1929 by the Duke of York - not the Grand Old, he was much earlier, I mean the future George VI. But fittingly, it’s a rather grand old building, with a balcony at the front where I could imagine the Duke and his missus doing a little wave to the massed throngs of Tower Hamlet’s grateful poor. The frontage is shabby but that’s OK. Bright red and green painted railings clash a bit with the faded council smartness - I mean 'Council' from a time when that was regarded as rather posh and respectable, dark wood and brass handles and a proper job for life. The reception still bears the good posture of a well-proportioned hall, even though the sign pointing upstairs to a ‘membership lounge’ looks like a late attempt to poncify it. I go through to the wet changing area – past a proud and full trophy cabinet and a contrastingly empty display of ‘employee of the month’. The walls and corridors all look solid and old; they are solid and old, this is a solid and old place.
The changing rooms are a bit horrid and knackered. I bear up. A green, corporation floor, blue metal sharp-doored lockers, a few pathetic cubicles clustered round a couple of beaten up benches. I dutifully wait for a small boy to get out from the poolside shower so I can so do, before I get in the water. People should shower before they get in. Why don’t they? If they did, and wore hats, the water would be less scuzzy and we’d need less chlorine and I won’t be sitting here sneezing. Can we not, in this inst, be more European? Sigh.
This is a funny old space. Big and light, I'll give it that, but don’t, please, come here for design. It’s an uncool and distinctly shabby late-60s mix, dark and light blue wall tiles below, pebble-dash textured walls above. There’s a seating gallery, and two lines of windows right up at the top. The whole end wall is glass with concrete chevron frames, and today it’s so cloudy with condensation you only get a little glimpse of the yellow stock Georgian buildings outside. In front of this window is a 5metre horseshoe diving board, one of the few remaining in use, according to Great Lengths, a book that also tells me that this was the first 33m pool in Britain, for which, a big hurrah. As well as this 33m pool (hurrah) there’s a small teaching bath. The ceiling is an inverted V with a lattice of dark blue metal struts. At one point in my swim, I stop and stare at the ceiling and ask the guy lounging at the shallow end ‘What’s that ceiling material, do you think?’ He looks at me like I’m a nutter, like who the fuck asks that kind of question? It’s me, hello! ‘Probably asbestos, given the age of the pool’ he says, which is what I was thinking. ‘It’s alright as long as it’s stabilised’. ‘Happy swimming!’ I say, and plunge ever onwards.
The water: it’s a good temperature for swimming, not too hot, and in itself looks quite clear, its only when you look at the bottom of the pool you see the grime nestling in all the corners. It’s part of the aging process, I tell myself, happens to us all. There are huge square white tiles lining the pool, cool white end gutters so nice to the touch. Chunky black demarcation lines. The presence of a diving board will have alerted you already to the depth of the deep end. When I look up, the pool’s got busy, but swimming busy, quiet and intent, which I will allow. In my medium lane, I race the guys in the fast lane. They don’t know I’m doing that, but they always win.
And despite its busyness, I enjoy my swim. It’s the 33m thing. It’s a historic building thing. It’s a memory thing, too. Going down those in-built steps into the water keys right back to lots of pools through my life. Yes, it's shabby. Yes, the tiles are dirty. Yes, it's not your perfect ideal of 'modern leisure'. I don't want to go all 'honesty of a working environment' on your asses, but it's friendly, old-fashioned, basic and unpretentious. And its 33m (hurrah).
The showers are a hot thin blast and the creeping black mould up the corners screams of a lack of rigorous cleaning regime (roll those rrrrrrr’s) but its not going to kill anyone. As I’m changing I hear a woman proclaim loudly in what sounds like a Spanish accent ‘pay for the lockers? Never in my life have I had to pay for lockers’. Maybe free lockers is another European thing we could emulate. Apparently there used, to be a Turkish Baths in the basement, but now it’s been tarted up, gentrified, call it what you will, they call it a ‘spa experience’. I’m not one for spa experiences so I give it a miss. I’ll give the boxing a miss, too. And frankly, if I lived near here, I’d chose my second favourite lido at London Fields over this pool any time, during daylight hours. But this one, with its history and memory and length (33m, hurrah) is definitely punching above its weight.
And there was me, promising not to end on a boxing pun.