Monday, 18 July 2011

Cold comfort

Gordon House Rd, Hampstead Heath
London NW5 1LP
0207 485 5757
Added bonus: This picture - isn’t it great? It’s by Darren Hayman, and is one of a series he’s putting out to accompany an album of songs about lidos, next year sometime. I've heard a couple of the tracks, and they're beautiful. I'm VERY LUCKY to have this preview, and glad to share. Please appreciate fully. His site is here.
Added bonus II: you could do a quick dip in Hampstead Ponds, then do a serious swim here. Or vice versa, I’m not prescriptive.

Parliament Hill Lido sits at the bottom of Hampstead Heath, which rises above it green and magnificent.  It’s one of those historic pools that has its own Wiki page, which tells me it was built in 1938, and other stuff you can check out here. You can note from that page the demise of the diving board, and I note from real life observation that there is now one teeny tiny slide – a bit of gratuitous kids stuff at the shallow end. I didn’t have a go on the slide. I might have got stuck, and while I have little personal dignity, that's an ignomy too far. I might have had a go on a bigger slide at the deep end, had there been one, particularly as no one was there, so nobody would have known.  

The architecture of 1938 can’t be described as glorious, or even nice. The lido is housed in a one-storey, blank-faced building that could double for an army supplies store. This unadorned, utilitarian style is one I like; it’s unpretentious, unfiddly and unfashionable, and all that plays in beautiful contrast to the shining pool within. The entrance turnstile is old and crochety; I turn right to the women’s changing room. This is a vast, cold, purely functional room with two rows of brightly coloured changing cubicles either side; the paint looks new, grown thick over years, in the prime yellow, red and blue which seem to be regulation lido colours.  The paint may be fresh but the room’s a barn - I bet they over-winter cows in here (insert own punchline). Old tile floors you could pressure-hose down. Only a few cubicles have doors, light steel slabs that fit in with the cow-shed feeling; it’s like the outside, inside and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see donkeys in stalls at the end. I took advice from a woman in the shower who said I could leave my kit poolside, but it was PISSING with rain and I didn't want my clothes wetter than me when I got out, so the ticket woman kindly put everything in the basket area, cramming it into a old wire box that would sell well as a 'vintage' piece. You can imagine a row of them in an uber trendy home, as shelves for olive oil bottles and white plates. Everywhere,  the fittings are rickety, a particular kind of historic,  - and for that, GREAT. Please never modernise.

I pad through the rain puddling on the slabs, and survey the pool quickly - on a sunny day this ‘looking at the water before I get in’ bit can be ages as my bare skin warms up, and on a winter day, I can be HOURS staring at the ice, delaying the moment. Because the building is low, you get enormous amounts of sky, a whole dome of it above you, which is terribly generous. I clock the tiny slide. The poolside area is big, plenty of space for hanging out; a fountain, much like that at Tooting Lido, only surrounded by plexi-glass to … protect people from splashing? Stop them getting in? A tiny pool that could be for kids or could be a footbath to dissolve verrucas, or a combination of the two. Different levels and areas - wide steps, a café on a raised platform, an outdoor shower, presumably cold.  It won’t win glamour prizes, but has a particular architecturality, an early-Butlins vibe. I eye up a huge redbrick mansion block that takes up one whole side of the view. Hmmmm, balconies. I decide that if I lived in N London, I would definitely have to live in that block. I remember that I do know someone who lived there … who NEVER SWAM! I can’t comprehend the point of that. It would be like having children and denying yourself the pleasure of smacking them. Oh, come on, I’ve never smacked my children. It’s a JOKE (blushes).

Then the pool itself: what a lovely generous sight. It’s 50m long, and wide, too, and has the glint of the modern to it, in contrast to all the pre-loved stuff.  I think it's what's called an infinity pool - is that the right word? When the water slaps over into drains at the side? I think of infinity pools as those ones in expensive holiday brochures for places I’ll never go, but I don’t know how else to describe this set up. It occurs to me that this makes the water flatter on the surface, because if it never bumps up against the edges of the pool, it doesn't ripple in the wind? It also makes a pool look fecund, somehow, the constant over-brimming, almost bowed on the surface. Today it's interrupted by the rain but otherwise it's a calm steely blue, an unusual colour, the metallic grey blue tinge.  Enough musing, it’s raining hard, I don’t want to get cold before I even start so I hop in, hoping that the thunder will stay away. The reason for the colour becomes apparent – it has a dimpled steel lining, so the whole of the pool is like a great big brand new pan. What an unusual treat this is. I swim my first length, using a weld in the metal as my swimming line,  trying to see if it reflects me like a mirror – it doesn’t, but the shine of it reflects the swimming ripples, it’s bright and light on the eyes,  even on this grey day. The shallow end is very shallow and as I push off, the bubbles under my hand break and spread on the bottom like a flat fish burrowing into sand. Too shallow – I can walk my fingers along the bottom and on every turn, have to keep my body crouched right down and twist oddly to avoid banging knees and to keep my shoulders under. But from the deep end, I can see right down and across the empty pool, gloriously dark vast silver blue. As I finish, the sun breaks through briefly, and sparks off the edge of the steel, like someone playing reflective tricks with a mirror.   

It's always hard to get out when a pool is so empty, those times come so rarely, but I'm starting to chill. This is an unheated pool - it gets cold, even in summer. Please heed that, and see previous posts about hypothermia.

My swim is enlivened by the sight of a man’s bare buttocks as he scurries to dress, and clearly can't quite remember the code for the door he’s trying to open. 

I burned myself on a scalding hot shower.  I'm not complaining, it's my own fault for not working out which way meant ‘hotter’. The café was shut because it was raining. That I do complain about. I was hungry.

I think, as I trudge away from the closed café, that if this was a private pool, oozing with cash, all the facilities would be ‘consolidated, ‘updated’, ‘modernised’. And I thank no one in particular that it isn't. It’s lovely, just the way it is. Lucky lucky swimmers of Parliament Hill lido, which is us. 


  1. Pool is more like 61m than 50m. It was built in Imperial times, not Metric, which always leaves you with odd lengths.

  2. Thanks, Anonymous, I usually just go with what the 'official' line is, but you're right, same at Tooting which is 100 yards, 91m.