Monday, 30 January 2012


2b Crystal Palace Road

Dulwich, London, SE22 9HB
0844 893 3888
Added bonus: Sweets, and painting.
Negative: .... clap your hands

Whichever way you look at it, this building has a nice frontage. On the main road is the original 1892 entrance to the Dulwich Public Baths which looks as grand as it sounds, you can imagine men with whiskers and frock coats swanning about there whipping things. There’s a good picture of it in my new favourite best book 'Great Lengths: The historic indoor swimming pools of Britain' by Dr Ian Gordon and Simon Inglis. This is like a companion piece to Janet Smith's superb lido book, 'Liquid Assets' - both published by English Heritage and essential, really, if you're going for the full swimming book library. I had no idea that I was going to an historic pool til I got this book, it made me much more keen to get to East Dulwich (a nice bit of branding for an area you might otherwise know as Camberwell or Peckham). And rather than botch up the fancy front, they've added a new  modern entrance on a side road. Properly accessible, nice, very zhoosy* with the obligatory dark wood and glass. Which do I prefer, old or new? Neither, they both have their place. Oh my, I must be in a good mood.

Of course, it won’t last.

This new entrance area is probably styled similarly to the homes of the  Dulwich mummies who cluster round the gates with their fashionable enormo-buggies. Generous space, very trendy café with the ‘right’ colour chairs,  ergonomically pleasing shapes, even one 'feature wall' with big-patterened dark-lime wallpaper, as per every design mag since about 2000. The changing rooms: a square box, lockers and benches in the dark wood formica fashionable at this time, huge white brick tiles and very modern taps that look lovely but so completely perplex me I give up trying to rinse my goggles. I go through.

If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands…

There is a mums'nbabyz swimming group in the shallow end of the pool.

I told you the good mood wouldn’t last.

They’ve cordoned off the shallow end for this group, and all the happy mummies (and one daddy) are throwing their babies around enthusiastically singing that song. That’s a lot of airborne swimnappy, I think sourly, knowing from experience that overfull nappies can burst.

I get in the deep end and boy it’s hot. Almost bath hot. I bet they have to do that for the bloody babies. I’m sulking now. It’s RUBBISH trying to swim two-third lengths, particularly when other random mothers get in and try and PLAY with their children, try to teach them to SWIM in the bit I’M trying to swim in. Children and their parents are TAKING OVER MY SWIM. CAPS LOCK HELL. 

OK. I’m OK. I've modulated my outcomes, done some breathing, decided just to keep moving for half an hour. I’ve even made eye contact with a mother playing with her child right in my way la la la and done a little smile, ever the benevolent swimming lady. Partly because I can’t hold a bitter mood, I might drown with sourness, and actually this is a beautiful space, and partly because I’ve been there, I've taken a child swimming and watched other swimmers and just wanted to let go and swim but known, deep down, that it’s actually wrong to let your child drown simply because you fancy doing a couple of lengths.

I’m not going so far as clapping my hands when they get to that bit in the song, though.

IF this baby group hadn’t been there, this would have been a lovely swim, a lovely historic, peaceful 'viewing' swim, maybe, rather than full-on head down go-for-it one. The space really has been nicely restored. There are original wooden changing cubicles round the edge, a domed ceiling with metal A frame struts, windows half way up and along the ridge. Beautiful. The pool itself, only 25m and way warm, but in perfect proportion, crispy white with perfect dark tile lines. Even the silver filter covers on the pool floor are spot on.  There’s something right about the scale of these rooms: something intimate but purposeful, a clean clarity. Even with the shiny modern glass watching booth, you can still sense how this would have been; it’ll make you feel connected  to both old stuff and new stuff at once. It also utterly encapsulates the difference between Baths and Leisure Centre. This is Baths, and if you can go there with that in mind, you'll get the most out of it. 

Knowing that this is a historic pool, you’d think I’d elevate my thoughts a bit.  Yeah. What’s the point of the tankini? I found myself wondering. What does it offer that the one-piece does not? Yes it hides a belly, but so does a one-piece. The only answer I can find is that it offers quick – or at least quicker - access to your downstairs. But frankly, for most things you can pull a one-piece to the side. It takes me a good few hours of tankini contemplation to conclude that they are worn by women unwilling to say goodbye to their bikini years, who believe (wrongly)  that wearing a one-piece is a sign you've given up on life, on ever having a flat stomach, or are old.  I also counted the people in the pool wearing a swim cap: one. Me.  Why is that? Why don’t people wear swim caps? They’re GOOD. This particular pool has a brand-new UV filtration system to help cut down on chlorine, giving a clear message: we care about keeping this pool clean. Is that matched by the residents on the Peckham/Dulwich borders? It is not. They put their hairy hair in the water to curl round the legs and arms and eeeurch get in the face of other swimmers, the selfish buggers.

By the time I’d finished my 'swim', one baby group had got out and another in (there's a lot of them round here) so If You’re Happy was starting up again. I got out quickly. The next downside is a changing room full of mums scattering boxes of raisins and bits of oatcakes for their hungry Thomas's and Edie's, and dripping full swim nappies all over the floor. I did NOT want to dangle my trouser legs in that as I got changed. Check the times before you go, but do, for history sake.

Also go for sweets. There is a great new old sweet shop on North Cross Rd, just round the corner, Hope and Greenwood. I mean new prices, old sweets. Big jars of them, old fashionedy loveliness. (They’ve a concession in Selfridges – if that's a clue to pricing). I take my girl child there on the very rare occasions I feel flush AND cavity-careless;  I like to buy fake fags and pretend to be a child-catcher-style nicotine dealer to her friends, such fun. 

A strange final bonus: there’s a big William Blake mural on an end wall just up the road, and I googled it. If this is not the strangest thing you’ve learned today, I will eat my swim hat**. In 1767 William Blake went to Peckham (I wonder if its reputation was the same as it is now)  and had a vision of an angel in a tree. In Peckham. Weird, huh.  Anyway, there’s a mural commemorating it, here's a pic. (The pink herony bird is newer than the mural, to cover up graffiti) 

* Now THIS is interesting: I wasn’t sure how to spell zhooshy, so I asked Twitter. The lovely @gregalomaniac told me it’s bona polari, and told me the right spelling. I NEVER KNEW THAT. My blog's turning into the school quiz.  If you don’t know what bona polari is, google it. I can’t be doing all the work for you.

** I will buy a candy equivalent and eat that, you’ll never know. 


  1. This is such a historic place! Discovering the past of this swimming pool would not only encourage people to come back; it would also educate them a little about the historic value of such a place.

    1. I hope I've done a *bit* towards that, pointing towards the history at least, if not discussing the heritage value. But I do agree.