Hornfair Park, Shooters Hill Road
London SE18 4LX
There’s no phone number. You have to email better.org.uk if you have a query or if you want to book in advance. Yes, book in advance, you read that right; it seems odd to me.
It’s a little known fact that Charlton was named after Charlton Heston, hence the large golden chariot statue in the shopping centre, and their on-going commitment to gun crime, or ‘homage crime’ as they call it round there.
Ha ha. Obviously that’s a joke. They don’t have a shopping centre in Charlton.
It’s another bloody miserable summer’s day in London, the grey skies pissing endless down on us as we wend our way through the traffic of South East London. ‘We’ is me and Kate, and Kate is lovely Kate from Tooting Lido* whose ability to withstand cold water combined with superb baking skills make her a total catch. That's all my priorities, right there. Oh yea, and she’s completely lovely, which counts too, I hear. (She's already caught, in case you were wondering and also, I'm not running some kind of water/cake-related dating service, however good an idea that is.) We hadn’t, see above, booked in advance. The pool is newly re-opened but we felt that the weather - great weather for swimming outdoors actually - would probably put most fools off. Kate, being efficient, had looked at the booking system and seen there were plenty of spaces left, so we felt able to risk in. She did try to explain the system to me but as I can’t really see the point of it I didn’t listen very intently; she works with children so I think she recognised that 'I stopped listening look. (I'm sure there is a point to the online booking service, if Better** feel like adding a comment?)
There is a history to this pool and from my reading of the local press it seems that it’s mostly down to the perseverance of the Charlton Lido Swimming Club that the pool is in operation at all. That doesn’t surprise me – we have a superb and active club at Tooting; good clubs seem to be the vital link for places like this that don’t have the 'guaranteed revenue stream' of indoor pools. Cold pools are a bit niche, can’t think why. But guess what? This one ain’t cold any more. They’ve only done the first phase of development, which includes heating, improved changing facilities, a children's splash pool and new parking. Some things on that list don’t speak to MY priorities but I wasn't in charge. The development will continue in autumn – the pool is open til the end of September. But the point is: it’s open now. It’s 50metres. It’s OUTDOORS. What more do you want? Let’s find out, shall we?
I’ve never felt actually intimidated arriving at a pool before today. This one would be good for filmmakers looking for an exterior 70s-style Borstal location. I half-expect Guy Ritchie to saunter round the corner any minute in a little tweed outfit. And I bet Sarah Lund loves hanging out here when it's dark, holding her torch up in that funny way. It's hard person territory. Only the vicious-looking burglar-deterrent wire round the long, low exterior is shiny and new. The weather adds to that slightly foreboding oppression. Mostly, it looks abandoned. We find the entrance, and a rickety metal security screen has been pulled over just far enough for us to get in. It feels like going into a derelict building, except a man charges us £6. That’s steep, for derelict. That’s more than Marshall Street (here) which has the added bonus of vibes and a nearby Uniqlo. Pushing through ancient turnstiles and avoiding indoor puddles, we get our first glimpse of the pool. It’s 50m, as I said, half-laned and half free-range. There is one person in each lane. A helpful guard tells me our session ends at 11.45 – our session? Yep, they do it in sessions, it’s all part of their weird system – and points out various relevant areas. Changing cubicles are in two measly rows down the side, the outdoor showers are just beyond them, and the women’s loos are to the right. The changing cubicles are new, bright plastic blue and green, their newness pin-sharp against the brick walls of this traditional 30’s courtyard. They’ve been airlifted in from a more affluent place. You’d recognise the municipal styling of the era if you’ve ever been to Parliament Hill Lido (which I review here), even down to the choice of blue. You’ll remember too (pay attention, there’s a quiz at the end of this blog) that it’s an unadorned, slightly bleak style I like. There are two fountainy things at one end, which they’ve tried to tart up with a couple of undersized plants, the promised children’s splash pool is just visible beyond the pool cover rolls.
We test out the women’s loos first. That’s a mistake. They’re entirely in keeping with the foreboding exterior. If their theme is ‘abandoned’, they’ve thought of every last detail. It feels like squatting in a squat. Broken and cracked, cold and damp. I’m fairly hardened to these things (I’ve been to festivals) but I can’t imagine they will please the more particular laydee. We go and change, glad that the cubicles have Perspex roofs on to protect us from the relentless rain. We skip along a funny spongy strip that separates paving from pool, and I hop gaily in. And sink straight down – ‘Oh! This is the deep end!’ I tell Kate, as I bob up again. She points to a big painted sign: DEEP END. It feels like the wrong way round though – normally, the shallow end would be at the entrance, and the pool covers at the deep. Because I’m a bit odd and regimented, this throws me slightly. I like to start and end at the shallow end (I count my lengths in twos.) I know, it's all a bit on the spectrum … anyway, let’s move on, with me on the back foot already.
My shoulder is playing up, so I’m doing a lot of breaststroke, but it lets me really see everything. I see everyone else (all three of them) get out. It turns out, I discover when I get home, that one of them was @NikkiCoates*** who did my amazing map, the best way to navigate this blog. I knew she was swimming here this morning, and I did a little ‘significant look’ at her, but obviously my ‘significant look’ needs some work or I need to risk social embarrassment and actually say ‘are you…?’ next time. In the end it’s me and Kate in the water, and in the end end it’s just Kate.
It lets me contemplate, too, about what more we want from a pool. And my answer is, nothing. It is heated, but to 25 degrees which is not unpleasant. It’s 50m, so that gets the big tick. It doesn’t feel too chloriney. The rain makes the cold water of Tooting Lido feel very silky and lush and it doesn’t feel that here, so whether that’s because this is heated (aaaaargh! SCIENCE! HELP!) or is actually entirely in my mind, I don’t know. The staff are friendly. It is undoubtedly really very scruffy and run down. But the bit that matters, the pool, is great. Kate and I agree. I ask @NikkiCoates, and she agrees too, but as the alternatives for her are Wavelengths and the Arches, I’m not surprised. I know that if this pool were anywhere more fashionable than Charlton, it would be feted. Better** promise it’ll be better next year. But honestly, even this year, it’s great. Lucky Charltonites, get to it. (Just try getting to it without needing a wee, if things like dry loo roll are important to you.)
*She’s not actually ‘from’ Tooting Lido in the way that phrase might lead one to believe. She’s ‘from’ elsewhere. I merely know her ‘from’ there. Why the fuck am I doing this long winded explanation? Where the hell is a decent editor when one needs one?
** I know it’s confusing, having a comparative adverb as a company name. But I wasn’t in charge of this particular bit of branding, so meh.