Porchester Rd, Queensway, Bayswater
London W2 5HS
020 7792 2919
Added bonus: one of the few remainingTurkish baths in the country is next door. Also, places to smoke shisha pipes.
Negative: I didn’t have time to have one (Turkish bath, or shisha.)
The trains were fooffed, and it was a boiling cloudy day, so my bag (I carry enough swim stuff for an extended family) had made its mark in sweat on my back by the time I saw the proudly plain 50s font of the neon sign above the grand pillars of the Porchester Centre, a fantastic Grade II listed building. In through double doors, the kind my grandfather might have pushed open to go to work – heavy wood, a large brass handle - into the dignified architecture of the entrance. This is aged municipal, from a time when municipal might have meant conservative and upstanding, and when conservative might not have been such an insult. Tiles and dark panelling and hefty yellow stone walls with a solid air of permanence and solemnity. The motto should be: The decision to swim is not taken lightly. It’s similar to the council building I got married in (also a Westminster facility), and reeks of the serious daily work of men of old, poring over massive ledgers crammed with tiny spidery numbers.
The first thing I saw in the changing room was a woman hair-drying her feet.
It seemed odd, but I’m a bit of a late (or non) adopter of stuff other women count as integral parts of their ‘regime’, so I happily concede it could be me that’s out of step. The changing rooms are a bit smelly and the bench I put my stuff on was wet; it wasn’t totally shit, but considering it was refitted in the last decade, surprisingly tired and drab.
On to poolside, two barn-like spaces. The first is a big shallow teaching pool, white-walled, white-tiled, bright, sunny and light, with a vast metal strutted ceiling, also white. Busy, splashy, full. The light spilled through a tatty blue tied-up curtain on to the main pool and as you go through, your eyes need to adjust from the glare. This is a dark and quiet church in comparison, a much more reflective space, and the church description is not out of place, if it helps you think of a plain uncluttered place. At the deep end is a huge stone wall, a round window set up high, and unconvincing council lettering where the altar would be. It’s a large echoing room, with a high balcony, a huge curved skylight along the domed ceiling and more round windows set along one side, high up. When the sun shone, as I got in, large dappled light circles hit the middle of the pool; in the dim light it was like swimming through punctuation
The main pool is 30 metres, three wide lanes, and cool as I get in. The surround is beige old stone, the old tiles were once white, and the odd patch of green mould now ingrains the surface. Cracked red painted lines across the pool floor won’t be there much longer. There are gutters at each end, with an additional metal bar at the deep end. Everything about it has faded, way past its best. I swim down through the sun circles, and every time I get half way along, I got a sharp needle of light and a blast of happy sound from the other pool, like changing channel suddenly. Aside from that, it has a sense of purposeful peace, everyone getting on with their swim, quietly accommodating different paces. It is the kind of pool where being short-sighted would have benefits. The water seemed clean enough (wince) probably, barely. I’m not fussy, I’m very low maintenance* but even I baulked a little when I saw scuttling movement on the bottom of the pool, movement that reminded me of early life-forms in nature documentaries. And once your mind is on that track, every little movement you catch out the corner of your eye is some weird pre-evolutionary blob. Oh, so what, I thought eventually. What’s the option? To get OUT?
A revelation hit me, with the same sharp clarity as the light shard from the other pool. I suddenly saw how flawed this blog is, that what I love is not necessarily what anyone else will love. Because I loved this run-down, slightly grubby place. I didn’t want it to be flash or uber-anything. Sure, I don’t want cockroaches scurrying across my feet when I shower (there were none, she says indemnifyingly). But I don’t mind ‘not looking too closely’ in the corners of the pool, where the dead skin settles. The atmosphere was neither welcoming, nor unwelcoming. It was shabby, not seedy. Dim, not gloomy. A mixed crowd, not mad busy, kids elsewhere. The changing rooms, yeah they smelled a bit, but the showers showered. It was just right, for me. Maybe this places me firmly somewhere in the social scheme of things, but I’m fine with that, I don’t need my pool to tell me I’m aspirational. I just like a regular old pool, with falafel afterwards.
In the changing rooms, a regular asked how busy it was; not very, I reported. Two people in my lane. She told me it was jam packed in the week, at lunchtimes particularly, so this would be a treat. In the background, another woman tried to get her child to sit down, so I dried and dressed to her soundtrack: ‘Pip. Pip. Sit down Pip. Please. Sit down. Pip, sit down. Pip, please, just sit down. Pip. Sit. There, good … Pip. Sit. Here. Please’. I went out, glad to be pip-free.
*I am low maintenance - doing our flat up ages ago, there was only a builders loo to use; my father in law (himself a builder) saw that I used it and told the family, as if I were some new breed of female. I’m still not sure if he was impressed, or repelled.