Monday, 19 September 2011

Willes Pool

Grafton Road
London NW5 3DU
020 7974 7000

Turns out, I didn’t have such a raucous 20s after all. Doing this blog I’m coming to realize how many pools I swam in during those years, and I’m disappointed in my younger self. I used to live in Kentish Town, so I knew where this pool was without looking it up. I trolled down the street and stopped at the impressive redbrick gothic building, yep, that’s it, memory served me well – it says ‘Public Baths’ up there, in fancy gold, looks better than it did, smarter.  I tried the doors, newly painted in restoration French grey. Hmm. Locked. I poked my head around the corner and saw a sign to a much more modest entrance, a ramped stone walkway with inlaid lights.  Behind a modern reception desk a man with the cheery demeanour of a Chuckle Brother welcomes me back, tells me I’d need £400,000 if I wanted to go in the original way - it’s been sold for flats. I sigh like I did when I saw that what used to be Ken’ish Tahn’s lovely independent Owl Bookshop is now a Tesco. He pointed me to a leaflet celebrating the first year of the pool’s refurb, and assured me that it’s all much improved. I’ll be the judge of that,  I thought snarkily, and handed over a comparatively moderate £4.50 to swim.

The route to the changing room is clear, there’s plenty of space in the women’s area. It’s nicely appointed, grey stone tiles, light mock-wood locker facings and benches. A woman tells me the old way was better, but I can’t really remember it, and resist her attempts to bring me down. The lockers are teeny - I have way too much stuff on. Bigger lockers are available in the corridor but who can be bothered to lug all their stuff in out in out (and it’s inevitable that the one item you’ll drop en route will be your knickers. That’s happened to me. I’ve found them on the floor, knowing that everyone must have walked past them and decided not to risk picking them up without tongs). You want to be able to put stuff in your locker as you divest, don’t you? I shove everything in, and make the usual mental note to de-clutter my swimming bag. I go through the cold shower very briefly and grandly, like I’m going to be announced at a dinner party and open two chunky and satisfyingly large wooden doors to Willes Pool.

Willes Pool: what a lovely  sight.  Have a look here, to see what’s been done, and what people can achieve – it’s a fantastic success story. Of course, the pool proportions have remained the same – it’s 33m – and now that the basic architecture around it has been uncovered and renewed, you can get a sense of how good proportion really works.  The high ceiling with the double skylight, the delicate balcony metalwork: it’s elegant and simple. The surrounds and walls are a beige stone tile, and there are lines of  silver detail right up top. There is an air, induced maybe by this excellent refurb, of quiet discretion. The pool is lined in white tile through to the white tile gutters to grab, they're nice and solid, with the feel of cool ceramic under your hand. The shallow end is deep, which I like - up to my shoulders; it means you can get a smooth swim, a good turn, and there isn’t that moment standing up when you feel you suddenly reveal yourself.  The water is very clean, it’s cool (though that’s probably in contrast to the heat of the room – I was red-faced when I finished my swim), and though it’ll never beat that crisp quality of cold outdoors, it feels good.

The sun dances the length of the slow lane from one of the topmost windows. The water flickers with broken circles of light. The sun goes in and the water becomes uniform again. It’s quite busy today, but the room feels quiet as church. They’ve over-laned the pool, making each one too narrow to comfortably overtake so this is a conscious swim, rather than one where you can loose yourself in thoughts. Despite that, the uncluttered poolside helps keep a calm equilibrium -  you don’t feel like you’re part of a mad session. It’ll be interesting to see in five years time if they’ve kept this up, or if there’s posters and adverts and bits and bobs of poolside furniture cluttering up the lovely clean minimalism.

I go and shower, and oddly, each shower has a cubicle attached, but as there's a sign that it’s not for dressing in, I’m not sure why they’re there. Maybe for claustrophobes. I think you take your stuff out of the locker, and take it to the shower cubicle, then take it out of the shower cubicle and into the changing room. More hoiking, but less chance of it being nicked while you're showering, maybe.  But anyway, it gives you more room in the general shower vicinity, so hey ho.

I see the Chuckle Brother as I leave. He may be right, it may be much improved, I can’t honestly remember, but it is great, so I give him a great big thumbs up. 


  1. Owl bookshop is still there thankfully. It's a couple of doors up from Tescos.

  2. Thanks for letting me know! I must have been so pissed off seeing yet another Tesco I had bookshop blindness.

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