BARNET COPTHALL LEISURE CENTRE
Champions Way, Hendon
London NW4 1PX
020 8457 9900
Added bonus: A patient family.
Negative points for: cafe
My family are pretty used to traipsing round on my missions, since I wrote a tree book and made them come with me to some of the more far-reaching sites. But ‘is this still London?’ asks Teen, from the back of the car. We’re going for lunch with friends in Mill Hill, and I’ve diverted, trying to make it sound accidental that we set out an hour early and I have my swims in the boot. I’m glad we combined the two because if I’d brought them all this way without the offer of cheesecake at the other end, it might have led to watery insurrection.
We turn off the main road, which has been miles of chicken shops and Bewty Barz and 24/7 Kostless supermarkets nestling under flyovers and beside horrible traffic junctions that make me screech ‘which exit which exit’ as I pass the exit we need. I’m full of Dickens today, partly because I’m mid-way through Great Expectations on TV, and partly because one of our Mill HIll friends adapted the book as a play set in India, this year. Nearly falling off the edge of suburbia, we creep down the empty, long speed-bumped service road, high trimmed hedges hiding the flatlands of very-north London; and as the massive stock-brick block of the leisure centre looms out of the rolling rainy gloom, I think that this is some kind of alt-Dickens vision of modern existence. That if he was writing now, this place, where rural meets suburban, is where Magwitch might loom, suddenly, out of the boggy fields behind the flickering floodlights of a Texaco garage, clambering across dumped shopping trolleys and past an illegally-tethered rotten-hooved pony to find a child like Pip chucking stones at crows before someone gives him an Asbo.
(Do stop me if I turn into a wanker.)
So. In the middle of nowhere, a huge bright yellow-brick box sits on its tarmac plot. From the outside, it feels like nothing, a French hypermarket maybe, but as soon as you go in, it feels like a swimmers place. There’s trophies in a cabinet. (Expectation levels: maybe not great, but certainly quite high.) One of us is already a winner - it's me, because I have a cap from a water bottle and therefore get a free swim. (It’s a promotional thing on certain bottles from the schhhh brand, but as they’re owned by C*ca C*la I will add that I was GIVEN the bottle cap, I did not purchase the drink myself.) I head to the changing rooms, and my children slump off to the spectator seats.
The changing room is large, tired and beige. Much like myself - b’dum tsch. There’s a nice old wooden bench in the middle and decently wide wooden benches round the edges, topped with modern wood-a-like lockers that don’t quite match, but were clearly intended to. The real wood is knackered, varnish chipped and aged in a way that the modern lockers will never achieve. I like warm old wood, and tired wood reflects my inner self. The lockers in such close juxtaposition are horridly plastic. There’s a woman in here changing her two boy children and herself; the children stare at me as I come in and change. And stare. And stare. And stare. I’m not fussed. The woman tries to put an inflated armband on the smallest child, pushing it up his arm so hard that his skin squeaks. Owwwwwww he says. Sorry, she mutters, shoving the damn thing further up past his elbow. I go through to the pool.
Signs, they point, either to activity pool, teaching pool, or main pool, and hey, that’s good, that means swimming is a serious business in this place, more serious than ‘activity’… better raise my game. Also, better leave a trail of breadcrumbs so I’ll find my way back again. Trundling along, I pass one of the ‘wellness’ changing rooms they’re refurbing, it looks like it’s going to be good. Maybe ours (the ‘illness’ changing rooms?) will be next! Woo hoo, high hopes! The rest of the environs may have slipped, everything worn and softened with age, but still... Then I enter the swimming ‘arena’ (is what it feels like). My immediate impressions exactly match the immediate impressions from the outside: it's a box made of endless unadorned bloody brickwork. The box is wider than it's high, yellowing beige, banks of spectator seats right beside the pool. The air is cold, I don’t want to hang round out here. The ceiling is netted, it looks like they could launch a thousand party balloons at the drop of a hat; in the centre, a phalanx of big white speakers hangs over the water; there are banners on one wall, a couple of long window slits on the other, and in the centre, this wide wide … 25m pool.That’s OK. … It’s OK. It’s clearly taking itself very seriously as a swimming venue. But it’s 25m. This is a short noisy man of a pool. A pool with Napoleon complex.
A shallow pool at that. I make an undignified entrance jarring my heels on the bottom (memo: read the frickin SIGN, it says 1m), and start swimming. The floor feels old fashioned, a pale cream yellow concrete painted with chunky blue lines, giving it more of a hand-crafted look than the cold precision of tiles. There was a bit of cuttlefish in my lane. It never gets deeper than 1.9m, and feels warm compared to the air temp. It tastes strange, like dental amalgam, though I have been to the dentist this morning so it could be that. Husband is also swimming – he reckons it tastes like hairspray, but he’s gasping along in the wake of a uncapped longhaired swimmer. Limey. Bleachy. Something odd, is how it tastes. But don’t trust us: one of us is still numb from a filling, and the other is a passive Elnette drinker.
For all the square ceiling lights, the whole space is dark. You know if you shut your bedroom curtains on a sunny day, that’s how it feels. I’m the kind of person who would march in and YANK yes YANK those curtains apart, fling the window open and practically insist that the air and sunshine come in, so this kind of gloom is not my natural habitat. I realise that the one thing this huge building didn’t have is enough windows. Nothing to break up the bricky monotony. Then suddenly the sun comes out, for the only thirty seconds it will grace us today, and a strip of light crackles in and across the water, exactly as it would down the side of an ill-fitting curtain. For a second or two, swimming with stripes of light rippling in blocks across the water is a real pleasure. (If you're quick with this kind of light, you can trick a child into believing that god, speaking from the clouds. Don't judge, I'm just passing it down the generations.) Then I realise, in my cynical way, that we are appreciating its momentarity qualities, its fleeting appearance; if they’d put windows in, those few illuminated seconds would have been constant, and so devalued. It’s the architectural equivalent of ‘treat em mean, keep em keen’.
I get out and cold shower. No, not on purpose, I’m not an idiot. I meet my family in the café, which serves crisps, icecream, and c*ca fucking c*la. I genuinely don’t get that. Why a ‘wellness’ place serves ‘shitness’ food and drink. When I’m in charge, that won’t happen, so place your orders now.
We head on for lunch, and as we hit the shopping parades again, I think: it’s going to be a good year of swimming. It really is. I have great expectations. Maybe see some of you along the way. Happy 2012.