Monday, 12 September 2011


221 The Highway
City of London E1W 3BP
020 7709 9714
Added bonus: The DLR. Cheap. (£3.60)
Negative points: check school lesson times. Also, the non-returnable locker thing (see below).

Shadwell. Say it a bit Welsh, in a homage to the John Sparkes character of the olden comedy days. If posh people lived here, they would probably call it Shadders. But they don’t, not a one. I used to, on the 17th floor – great views - of one of two tower blocks that dominated the area then, with a man who eventually asked me to leave because I made the bathroom floor too wet when I got out of the bath. Now I’m older and wiser and have my own bathroom floor which gets wet from other people, I see how wrong it all was, and wish to humbly apologise via this blog.*

The DLR, a joy and a delight, then out into the Shadwell day: in the long view, the towers and lights of the City and Canary Wharf, in the short view, Pete’s pie and mash shop (closed at time of visit). The three-minute walk to the pool is well signposted, and so far, so East End, down to the man in grey trackie bottoms and a vest walking an old bull dog; a mix of red Victorian and 60s box architecture, then suddenly a huge dark grey elephant of a building with no discernible entrance and small scuffed signs. This is not a pool hoping for cruise-by custom. This is not a pool advertising its wares. This is a building that says ‘keep out, skin-burning chemicals in here’. The windows at ground level are dazed with condensation. Everything about its hard blank face belies what it is. Eventually, I work out that the entrance is round by the bins through the car park and when I turn the corner, the newly-zhuzhed** reception practically sparkles out of the gloom.  Three steps beyond it, in the building, and you’re in scruffy again, the scruffy of a certain era – painted brickwork, metal banisters and plastic-wrapped hand rails. It’s a bit of a mish mash between this time and that, but pretty clean and well maintained.

The changing rooms are a nice surprise. Not because they don’t have basic-to-standard lockers, cubicles, showers, loos, they do. Not because they’re offering extras, or the posters are inspiring, they’re not. But checkerboard red and white clean square tiles make it look very fresh and new. That red is nice. It bodes well. It makes me cheerful. No wonder Father Christmas uses it. I change in a cubicle with a short saloon-style door and pay my 20p.

I walk out, take a right, and there, straight away slap bang in front of me, is the pool. There is something in this, the impact of a first perspective. This feels laid out at my feet, for my delectation; coming at it so quickly, nose to nose in just one, two steps from the changing room, makes a good instant impression. And what helps enormously with the feeling that it’s just for me is … it practically is.  Bar one woman in the slow bit, it’s empty. I approach the lifeguard with my entrance ticket (soggy from being held in my mouth while I'd put my locker key round my wrist, sorry mate) and ask if it’s always like this. ‘No’, he replies ‘it’s usually full with school children at this time’. By now you probably know my views on swimming with school parties, and if you don’t, take a wild guess. It is really worth checking.

The pool room has windows on all sides, in three tiers with spectator areas at each level; there’s lots of light and it’s very well-proportioned. A design style from a time I like. The walls are tiny-tiled in a nostalgic egg blue; the metal ducting wrapping around is a plasticy green but even that doesn’t jar. The pool is a great size, a good chunk, three solid lanes and a fat non-laned bit. It has that desirable 33m length with two solid built-in diving boards to the right – I’m not sure if they are operational, but it does mean the deep end is divable, and I love the chance to swim as the floor slopes down and away, love that pull. Also to the right, behind glass, is a gym (I can see a sweaty man on a running machine) which is leeching music out over the water. Boo to the incidental noise shit. Fortunately once I’m in the water I can’t hear it. I swim up and down right in the middle of the pool. I like the middle. It’s so nice to have the lane for myself, I swim up and down quite a lot. Everything is well placed, the rails and depth at each end make turning straightforward. It’s all fine. I quite like it. My low expectations are well exceeded. In the deep end I can barely make out the dirt on the bottom of the pool. And as I’ve already ignored the cracks in the ceiling and worn-in grubbiness of the floor tiles by the steps, I decide to ignore what looks like the strip off a panty liner as it slowly feather-wafts down.

I get out and smile at my personal life guards in their plenty. And it’s time for a little gripe, not about this pool alone, but all the pools that do this. I’m going to shower, so I open my locker to get my towel and shampoo. The lockers are surrounded by the standard thief-alert posters, basic indemnity notices covering the arses of The Management  – if you leave your stuff out and it gets nicked, it’s your own stupid fault. So, then, when the lockers have already swallowed my 20p, what do I do when I get my shampoo and towel? I can’t lock it again unless I put another 20p in. Should I leave it open to ALL THE THIEFS MILLING ROUND just WAITING for me to get naked? It’s stupid and annoying.  In this case, there’s no one here so I’m not worried. (I should add, I generally don’t give a shit, but other people live on slightly higher alert.) In the shower cubicle (there’s a choice, cubicle or communal, with handy pictures of shower heads), the water blasts are hot but short.  I’m not afraid to touch the tiles, which is not true of every pool I’ve swum in.

All in all, the people of Shadwell have a nice pool. A little down at heel in some respects but a decent size. Not sure I’d travel for it, but I’d be happy with this as a local resource. And for that, top marks to Tower Hamlets.

* Ha ha. As if.
** zhuzhed. Who knows the proper spelling. Is there one? As long as you know what I mean.  


  1. One of the better indoor pools that you've reviewed. Something to be said for the 60s!

  2. Lots of good things come from the 60s, eh, Carl.... ;)

  3. wish I'd been able to join you for this one, though water not so clear as at Rotherhithe...?!

  4. Just started a personal survey of London pools, so v pleased to find your blog. I had my first swim here on Thursday. I was there when it was quiet; a women-only session. Just missed the Russian synchronised swimming team apparently. Really liked the large pool and the high roof. And the windows . . . with the trees on three sides. Shame no one thought to set the building back a few yards from The Highway and plant some trees to the south to complete the illusion. The 20p locker biz is a nonsense . . . just have to make sure I go with two coins next time. All the same, am looking forward to visiting again

  5. My tip on the 20p locker swizz - lock everything up except your towel/shower gel, which you leave on a ledge (or some such) beside the pool while you swim. Then after your swim you can shower and dry before unlocking the rest of your stuff. Of course, it does still expose my manky travel towel to the risk of theft during the swim but if anyone is desperate enough to want it they probably need it more than I do...