MARSHALL STREET BATHS
London W1F 7EL
07801 477 750
Added points for: The vibe from dead people.
Negative points for: pricy, even with added vibe.
I was coming out of this pool once, and a man introduced himself to me as Sharky Marky, and told me how many swimming pools he’d swum in round the world (it was a lot, obviously; ‘I’ve swum in three pools’ would never be a great line). I said to him ‘I love this pool, the vibe is so excellent.’ (Yes, I do talk like that. I’m a bit of a wanker.) That was enough encouragement for him to tell me the following: in the olden days, he said, this whole area used to be closed-off, where people with the plague lived in isolation, to avoid the spread of the disease; and a necessary part of that were mass burial grounds. So many souls beneath us, he said, created this great vibe.
Right, I said, uncharmed, wishing I’d never said ‘vibes’. I went home and looked online, and indeed, the area round Marshall and Carnaby streets was known as Pesthouse Close, with plague pits and burial grounds. The first public baths were built in 1851/2, in all probability right on top of mass graves. Hundreds of dead bodies, right right down, beneath the foundations of the pool. Obviously, you have to be at a certain point on the faith/stupidity vortex to connect (ahem) spirits of the dead with a nice swim. Thanks, the dead. But regardless, it is a great bit of London history, passed from Sharky to me to you.
I have a much more prosaic answer to why this has such a great vibe – lovely design, and fantastic marble. I used to swim here when I worked nearby, when it was ‘Baths’ not Leisure Centre, and then it was shut for about 100 years (mem to self: check dates). I don’t remember the vibe, maybe I just didn’t feel it. But newly refurbed, newly opened, I’m riding that vibe like a merboy might ride a dolphin, which, funnily enough, there is a bronze statue of, in a niche at the shallow end.
The building now has a very discreet tardis-like entrance on a boutique street off Carnaby Street. A modern reception with the usual display of cronky swimming costumes and goggles (anyone ever bought one? With John Lewis a mere ten mins away?) and a nice big window onto the pool so you can see how empty it is. Down to a quite nice changing room/corridor, then the required, nay insisted-upon pre-swim shower, clutching the ticket you then hand over, soggy, to the lifeguard. How many times have I nearly lost those tickets? It’s a funny old system.
Then poolside. Gorgeous. Dare I say, a little bit health-clubby. A little bit … posh. Maybe this is as posh as public can go; no wonder it’s over a fiver to swim. It’s 32 metres (100 ft), and three-laned, and really nicely done. Uncluttered, clear and clean, iconic and simple with just the right mix of restoration and modernity. Pastel shades abound in arching plasterwork semicircles on the back wall, reflecting the shape of the massive ‘barrel-vaulted’ ceiling with huge curving windows to the sky. And in great flat panels of aqua green on the walls. But the jewel is the marble lining of the pool. Sicilian, for those for whom the provenance of the pool marble is important. It gives it a feeling of living coolness to touch, not clinical cold; pure, not fussy or mass produced. Big lovely slabs. That, and the shape of the ceiling must do something to your experience of sound in space here, because it feels hushed and reverent. Of course, part of that hush is the fact that people don’t really talk much in swimming pools. We go about our business silently splashing. Probably shit acoustics for a party. There used to be changing cubicles poolside, do I dimly remember? Now it’s calm, nicely echo-y and, the best thing, quiet - I’ve been at different times of the day, and often been alone. And even when there are school lessons to one side, there are so few other people that the generous lanes don’t get cramped. (I’m sure there are pre- and post-work times that it’s madly busy.)
The changing rooms: I was critical of London Fields lido changing rooms in a nit-picky way, so I feel compelled to apply the same criteria here. It is more of a changing corridor, with only a few cubicles for privacy, and the loos are right there where EVERYONE CAN HEAR YOU. You have to lean on the shower button often – it seems to go off quick, just as you’ve got the lather going. But it’s nice, it’s new, and that’s as mean as I can be.