Monday, 26 November 2012


1 Norman Street, EC1V 3AA
0203 642 5520
Why? Because it’s really great.
Why not? Why? Why not? etc.*

I occasionally wish I lived in less sarcastic times. I accept that is entirely of my own making; if it was merely habit, I’d have broke it, but it’s ingrained I think, part of me. Life would be so much nicer – supernice, even – if I could use ‘super’ in that way without my teeth hurting. I really want to, it seems to me like a symbol of inner happiness.  Because this is super exciting! I was there on the first morning they opened this pool to the public. I wouldn’t have missed it, I was super-ready! It was supercool! (There. I’m done. I’ve super-overdosed. Back to the safety of sarcasm.)

To say that I’ve waiting 17 years to swim here suggests that’s how long it’s been shut for, which is not true. Actually I’ve waited two, with building delays, but the last time I swam here I was heavily pregnant with my first child who I left at home this morning engaged solely in the task of growing his facial hair for Movember. Yeah. Exactly. I came looking for memories. I came thinking I could key right back to that time, before him, when I worked round the corner at Spitting Image and went swimming at lunchtimes with my PA. And times have changed.  Now he has a scraggy beard, there is no Spitting Image and I have to carry my own bag. Can you imagine how difficult that is for me? 

I came looking for memories, scrabbling backwards through my tired brain. I can just barely recall the feeling of swimming pregnant – try strapping a bowling ball to your belly in some loose netting if you want to experience it. Getting in water makes it feel lighter, but you are inexorably caught in the sensation that it wants to drag you down to the bottom. Hmmmm. Hop up on my couch, and let’s talk about that, shall we.

But from the minute I saw the building, I could feel my grasp on those memories slide away; I couldn’t grab them. I didn’t recognise the outside even - there’s a beautiful carved piece of light stone declaring IRONMONGER ROW BATHS across the new entrance doors with massive 'happy swimmer' film posters underneath. (I love that they still call it ‘Baths’ rather than rebranding to Leisure Centre. Baths is solid, reliable, built to last. Leisure Centre is mimsy.) The reception is spanking: lots of natty leather sofa-ettes and chairs beside a slot of a window lending a view of the pool. (I didn't peep in, I wanted to save it.) Huge simple letters point to the various areas – I like that; I like that they solved the problem of arty signeage being hard to spot, by going MASSIVE. None of this, though, is part of my past. I’m looking for something to hold on to. Then as I was getting changed, I realised that if I spent my time snuffling down into that muddy past, I’d miss what was there. So I stopped looking back, and started looking forward. Onwards and upwards, folks. Onwards and upwards. Because this is now the future, and really, it is SUPER FABULOUS!

The changing rooms are clean – well, this is Day One – with a polar blue theme on the lockers and block benches. It’s thoughtful about what it offers: there are a few enormo-lockers for people with inordinate amounts of stuff (hello), good disabled facilities and plenty of space for changing babies. (Not into anything else, though wow, that would be brilliant.) But I’m scurrying, because I want into that pool. I go through to the wetside showers and get my first proper look. I’m stunned. It’s really good. I think I freak the lifeguard out because I’m just stood there, taking mental pics. This is what I see:

A beautiful room, beautifully restored.  One of the long walls has huge flat Georgian windows, though their modern frames look just a teeny tad plastickly pvc; one end has another huge window with over-size, easy-to-see clocks underneath. The other end has a wall of glass dividing the main pool from a teaching one. To the left, the spectator gallery is stunning: what look like wooden church pews in rows: I think they're originals but that's from old pics not memory; I wasn't paying attention then. They’ve been perfectly restored with some lovely detailing, like the chunky metal catches on the ends of rows, for instance. Under the gallery, we're on the other side of that long lego brick of a window, now looking at the reception area; you can see people milling and form-filling and they can critique your stroke. There's a low wrapround stripe of beige tiling, the painted plaster up high is a Hail Mary blue (showing my cultural Catholicism here). It all sits under a coolly curved ceiling with a flat glass strip running the length, crinkled like an icecream wafer. Actually, the plain unobtrusiveness of the design better suits a low church analogy; it’s not the fancy bells and smells I was raised in, there’s no drama, it’s more modest and protestant than that. Simple, unassuming, modest.  Bloody lovely.

And finally, oh blessed relief! They have kept the original 30m (100ft) pool! Thank goodness they didn’t replace it, as they did at Clapham Manor (see my review here) with a poxy 25m–size pool. Yes, I do get grumpy about losing those precious 5m. It’s deck-edged (meaning the water spills over the edge into side drainage) and re-tiled in sparkly white with black lines. There are easy steps in at one side, and recessed steps on the other. Underwater, you can see how it slopes down, a ledge, a ledge, then a drop into the deep end. Everything so clean, oh if only all pools could be like on their first day. It’s over a metre at the shallow end so there’s no knee-scrapage on each turn. Lovely. A real swimmers pool, if a tad warm  as I discussed in the changing area with another swimmer afterwards; but it's hard to find anywhere indoors with mixed use that isn't. 

Once you’ve swum, it’s worth having a nose round the rest of the building. There’s an achingly-nice marble staircase up to the gallery, a ‘cardio zone’, and beside it, an original slipper bath, with a working tap - old and new, slotting perfectly together. Again, the detailing is superb. There’s boards everywhere that tell the history of the building but not, ho ho, in a dry way – they include local stories and some great pics, right up to date. Down an original staircase into a vestibule that is more in the tone of the old building, only with fresh heritage colours. Downstairs, they’ve remarketed the Turkish Baths as a ‘spa’. Nobody knows what Turkish Baths are, any more. But they’ve included a modern community laundry space, as per the old building. I love that. On the walls there are more boards that tell the story, more of the smiling faces that have swum in this place for ever.

I come out and think about what's gone. So I can't really remember that pool I swam in, before him. Turns out, it doesn't matter in the least. There is masses of past here, and they've built something new on it, with it, with great care. They've moved it forward, and I'm a looking forward person, after all. All that is good.  I love this new place. I think it’s straight in at No. 3 indoor pool (after Crystal Palace and Marshall St). It just pips Kentish Town, similarly newly restored.  I super recommend it. I superly do. Hello. My name is Jenny and I’m addicted to ‘super’.

PS * That 'why not, why, why not' thing at the top? I was shown round by a man who reminded me of a likeable Chuckle Brother. I'd seen him before, at Kentish Town. So it's a bit of a play on their hilarious 'to me, to you, to me' riff. (Sarcasm is fully restored, by the way.) 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012


I hope I haven't off pissed you by using such a cliched header, but this is not about swimming round London. Or even skiing.  But please don’t turn over, this *is* still about swimming, and heritage, a campaign and the need for all of us, swimmers or no, just to make a little mark that could make a difference.

I say ‘swimmers or no’ because I don’t think the campaign you can read about here, which is about saving and restoring Kings Meadow Open Air Baths in Reading, is just for people who like swimming, or indeed would use this pool.  The libraries campaign isn't just for people who use them - their presence improves life for everyone on some level. And we all have to do things that may not benefit us directly. The on-shore element of tax from people whose kids go to private schools, funds state schools. (I get particular satisfaction from that.) The tax from people who have Bupa helps pay for Bupa nurses to be trained. The tax from people who hate nuclear weapons goes to pay for nucle… oh god I’m really fucking up my argument here.  What I mean is: I personally am unlikely  to go to Kings Meadow more than once or twice. It’s not going to be a local pool for me, and since when was ‘going to Reading’ a treat? But that doesn't stop me selflessly promoting this campaign, not only because I'm a little angel but also because I see the bigger picture.  

I am very sceptical about e-petitions. They have become a pointless salve: look how engaged I am, how amazing, I’m re-tweeting a petition, an act that cost miliseconds I could have spent looking at kittens crammed into jars. There's so many petitions of variable quality or purpose it's sometimes hard to see the wood for the trees. (I signed that one. I like trees.) But in this case, the council have SPECIFICALLY said they want to see evidence that the campaign has support. I think a petition is a good way for us to give them that message, and probably easier than all going round the council's house for tea. It would get too crowded.

I fully accept – this is not life or death, it’s not Hillsborough or trees or libraries. IT’S MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THAN THAT. Only joking. But it is still important. If I can get over-dramatic for a moment,  this is about people over profit. Yeah, that old chestnut. I know. Rolls eyes. How dull. But it is. And sometimes the little stories are microcosms of the bigger ones. (The defeat of profiteers who would happily ransack and ruin every last inch of loveliness left to their own devices, is just a nice little side benefit.) It’s about history over pointless concrete; about something for all rather than something for money. It's about retaining something old rather than going to Primark for a cheap and shiny replacement. All the stuff we purport to care about. Don’t we? Well I do, and it's not just me, I know it. But more than that: this space somewhere for people to enjoy for no reason at all. Just … because.  (Well, for you to enjoy. Not me. It’s too far to travel. I told you, ever unselfish.) 


I’ll leave you with a link to the petition. Here.  Have a look. Then sign it. It’s just local people trying to help local people. And we’re all local people, aren’t we? So do it for yourself, if no one else. Please.