Thursday, 14 June 2012


261 Lewisham High Street London SE13 6NJ
0208 690 2123
*Or it might be. A bit. In a good way. You’ll thank me.

I was changing in the lilac and purple cubicles of Ladywell Leisure Centre wondering if it was me or the changing room that smelled of wee. Costume on, hat ready, I got my goggles out of the bag but before I could apply my usual anti-fog spray, I noticed they were covered in fine Majorcan sand. I took them to the sink and prodded and poked and waved my hand randomly over the tap before I realised that this was one of those taps you actually had to turn ON. A relic. Sadly I rinsed the sand off the goggles, listening to a couple of women chatting in the shower about how sorry they would be when this pool was gone. The pool was doomed. To be honest, for me it was doomed well before that point. I’m sorry, Ladywell, but I wasn’t swimming on a level playing field. 

This is why:

This is where I swam last week. It’s the first time I’ve swum in an Olympic-size pool with an actual Olympic team training in the next lane * fans self and stores images for long winter months*. It’s in Colonia Sant Jordi, southern Majorca, and I was there courtesy of Streamline Swims, who you can and should find here. I say ‘courtesy’ -  I know my life is one tedious round of glamorous showbiz freebies, but in this case I paid for my trip almost like a normal person. Mike and Sarah Streamline (not their actual surname) offer all sorts of open water trips, including this week in Majorca and what a fantastic week of swimming it is. The days started with a half hour of yoga on the beach followed by an hour-long training session in that pool, and then a guided sea swim of about 3km. I did that ignoble thing of getting filmed above and below water to have my stroke analysed, giving me things to work on through the week. It’s a challenge for those of us who are camera-averse, watching footage of yourself swimming. I thought Mike had playback on the wrong speed. (If you’re interested, and why wouldn’t you be, I learned that my right arm flings itself around randomly, I need to push my chest down and keep my head from rotating across the line. That's for starters.) Their attention is careful and positive, relaxed and friendly; Mike is easily the best teacher I’ve had, not least because he gave me the feeling I could be a really good swimmer one day. Also, I did my first ever dive! Don’t get fancy ideas, I just mean a dive from the side like most 8yr olds can do but I’ve pathetically never dared. My group was mixed ability, indeed two of ‘us’ were training for an Iron Man in September, and that sentence is about as near to an Iron Man I'm ever going to get, as I'm more Crimpelene Woman. But Mike and Sarah make sure that whatever level you are it’s a great experience.  They also run training sessions in - fortuitously for me - South London, and I’m signing up NOW. You can call this recommendation an advert, if you like; I prefer to see it as my gift to you.

Newly costume-line-tanned and with a peeling left ear, nothing less than a 33m pool would do to practice getting my right arm flinging itself less randomly, and so I found myself at Ladywell Leisure Centre. I’d make a pun out of Ladywell? Ladyabitpoorly more like, if I was a wordplay kind of gal. She’s certainly past her best, she’s in need of a bit of a scrub up, and her changing rooms smell of wee. (It wasn’t me.) BUT, she’s 33m long and you don’t get many of those around any more, do you?

As mentioned, the changing rooms need some money spent. A vast amount of grubby flooring, individual cubicles in a vile lilac/purple combo paired with battered blue and yellow metal lockers. It’s garish. The pool area itself is very dated. Grey tiles down one wall, a galleried seating area with faded red plastic seats, and a huge abstract picture taking up one wall, with layered strata in various faded pastels that reminded me of bottles of coloured sand you can buy from 50s seaside resorts on the Isle of Wight. There’s one main pool and a learner pool to the side, a high blank ceiling with regular round covered lamps and a line of upper windows. It’s plain and a little drab. There’s a huge orange plastic tube beside the pool, I feel a bit tempted to crawl up it, head towards the light. It looks like deserted building site material but actually it’s the end of a flume and  I worry that it’s badly placed and will deposit the flumee right on the hard tiled floor. OUCH. The pool is old-fashioned tired white tile with black line, high guttering acting as a hand rail.  It is shallow to get in, but it goes down to generous diving depth at the other end. The lane dividers  sag like my back skin did on the swimming video. There’s a greenish tinge to the water as if it’s spring-sourced, though in Lewisham that’s unlikely.

I chose my timing carefully for once, and the pool is divided into three generous lanes for general swimming. The atmosphere is peaceful; there’s only me and a couple of fast guys in, and we’re ploughing up and down with serious intent. I think I’m doing well for time, much faster, until I realise that the clock I’m watching has stopped. I have a lane  to myself, and I’m enjoying my stride until three ladies get in, with that tell-tale no-hat-no-goggles look of the ambient swimmer. I’m at the deep end, turning, they spread out at the shallow end. For a moment, we face each other. I’m following the ‘swim clockwise’ direction of the sign at the end of the lane. They are not. They swim towards me across the lane, their heads up, slow yet purposeful. They will not get their hair wet. I tighten my goggles, push off and glide, its  showdown time. But it’s no good. They can’t read … OR THEY DON’T WANT TO. I glare at the lifeguard. He smiles at me. MAKE THEM SWIM CLOCKWISE I will him. He smiles a bit more. I give up and switch to the lane with the fast men in, knowing I’m going to piss them off with my pace. Sorry, if you’re reading, fast guys, but the dry haired ladies made me do it.

I get out and shower, a strange situation indeed: one single shower and a double one consisting of two shower trays beside each other protected from view by a double shower curtain. The curtain is quite clean and not a bit clammy. But the shower is slow and not quite warm enough to linger. I quickly dry and change.

I realise as I leave that I’d barely dwelt on what I overheard: that the pool is going. And I also realise that I’m weird. I like this pool. When everything tells me I shouldn’t – the smell, the dirt, its lack of being in Majorca – I like it. I’d rather have this old dump at 33m than some glitzy new space at 25m. If I was Lewisham, I’d spend  a few bob on the changing rooms, get some tighter lane dividers in and update the wall art. I’d teach the residents the meaning of ‘clockwise’. And then I’d shout like mad about how lucky I was, having a 33m pool.


  1. Ah, but the opening of Forest Hill baths is imminent - they even delivered the timetable of swims and stuff like exercising your bum and tum the other day....

    Not sure on the size of the pool.

    I have fond memories of Ladywell, the upstairs and inappropriately named 'Palm Suite' used to host lefty meetings, and there was once a few-month-long closure once due to an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease!

    1. I'm so pleased I didn't know that before! And yea, the Forest Hill pool is on my radar. Gonna be a 25m pool (boo).

  2. Ladyabit poorly....don't think I'll be going - 33m or otherwise.

  3. The council wanted to close this years ago when they first decided to replace it with a new pool in Lewisham, it was only down to a concerted campaign by local swimmers that they agreed to keep it open while the new pool was built. Little wonder that they are spending minimum on maintenance. I'll admit I always had a soft spot for it as it was obviously designed to the same template and at the same time as the pool in my home town.

  4. The flume that wrapped around the OUTSIDE of the building has always unnerved me and I have not dared go in.

  5. I was just thinking fondly of this the other day. Its replacement, Glass Mills in Lewisham, was bright but raucous when I visited. I'll take shabbiness and peace any day. There's always the Arches...