Monday, 24 September 2012


Dartmouth Road, Forest Hill, SE23 3HZ
Tel: 020 8291 8730
Pros: It’s a brand new pool
Cons: I’ll admit, I’m hard pushed to find one. I could nit pick, it would be a strange day if I didn’t. I could moan about Forest Hill, but why, when it also has the Horniman Museum. You're never too old to snigger about that. 
(Pics: before and after. When I find a better 'after' pic, I'll change it.) 

I started my life in London living in a shared flat in Forest Hill, found through an ad in the Guardian. Then, my life was full of smokers and dopers and wannabe actors, it was odds and sods and cash-in-hand and slow trains to London Bridge. I would have no more gone for a swim than I would have nailed my foot to the floor.  Now I still live in a shared house but they’re my family, my life is full of school runs and jokers and dog walkers, and I’m coming back to Forest Hill Pool for a swim with a friend who just did an Ironman race*. It’s not always ‘funny’, how life turns out, but it is certainly unexpected.

And if sometimes life hands me little bits of synchronicity, I’d be remiss to ignore them; they’re writerly flavour. This was today’s: I moved to Forest Hill in the month that my father was dying. I was 21, graduating from uni. My dad, generally a classical man, had embraced Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and Focus - he played the Focus LP over and over and over.** And on my car radio on the journey here? A Focus track, ‘Sylvia’. (I put up a link so you could hear what was inflicted on me throughout my formative years.) I knew every breath of it, it was imprinted somewhere beyond my control, I couldn’t have forgotten it if I’d tried. If my life was a film, that in the car, then, was the moment for a flashback.

 There’s no missing this new pool building on a small street busy with traffic and little shops. It’s a bold box jutting itself out like a big chin on a small face. It’s clad in something I thought originally was wood with a too-bright stain, very red and orange. On closer examination it’s a hard, fired material, clay maybe, like roof tiles extruded into plank form. I dunno.  Right across the front in bold silver, Forest Hill Pools, nice and simple, dominant but striking, modern. And right now we’re in that small time window where everything, even the walkway, looks clean.  The entrance is at the side; to the left is the indoor-outdoor café - on this grey cloudy day, there were plenty of Chairs of Optimism - and to the right, a rolling roof like a gently stretched pair of m’s.

The Reception area is a wide airy corridor; there’s lots of light everywhere. Large grey slate tiles on the floor, a particular pistachio green on the walls, a long glass window through which you can see the main pool. It’s very busy with  kids, I note as I watch, which would normally wind me to screeching point, and hey! Today, I’m not bothered, I’m chill, I’m could  not care less, because I know there’s a lane swim session at 4pm, Ironman Hans looked it up beforehand. (I do recommend having an organized friend if it’s not your natural state.) I’m sat on one of the neat black faux-leather sofas in Reception making notes like a pretentious arse when he comes in. We met in Majorca this year on a trip I detail here; then, he was just training. ‘Just’. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. He probably did more in his training in a month than all the rest of the people I know will have ever done in their collective entire lives. He’s also, considering he’s (I think I mentioned) an Ironman, not at all the preening self-congratulatory wanker that I bloody would be, had I done such a thing.

We go through to the changing village, full of the kids who got out the pool when they put the lane ropes in. As you’ll know, this could bring out my inner snipper at 0 - 60 never too far beneath the surface at the best of times.  But it’s like they pre-empted me, like they KNEW, because just as can feel the snide rising I see a door, marked ‘Female changing’.  There’s another one for men. Where the Village is soaking and a bit hot and mad with frazzled dads trying to dress their children who keep hiding in lockers, this is a calm and empty box with its own showers and benches. What luck. 

There’s a baby pool on one side, and the 25m pool has it’s own very nice space. One side is the aforementioned window, and another is a big windowed wall to the outside, with what almost looks like Japanese frosted screening to head height. The roof is those rolling relaxed m-s, white and corrugated, with large white struts and pipes. The colours are pastel -  blue, muted, cool. It’s lovely. There are six starting blocks at the deep end; and it’s an infinity pool, deck-edged, easy to slide into. It’s been divvied into six lanes and they are a little narrow, I constantly nudge the rope. There’s no speed division so you find a space where you can. Even though it’s quite busy, it doesn’t feel it, good pool design gets rid of chop, makes for a fast swim; and even though it’s been full of children all day, the water is cool and clean. On a quiet day, I bet this is a great place for a swim, it has a calm and soothing vibe. I’d be happy with this.

The good thing is, though Hans is a brilliantly fast runner and cyclist, we actually swim at the same pace, which works really well (for me). I chase his heels for a kilometer. Turns out, we’ve both been racing the guy in the next lane (for info, we beat him on crawl, but not on breaststroke). I mentioned that the water felt cool, but I'm hot-faced at the end of my swim. I make a mental note that my toenail polish (a kind of crushed blackberry red) doesn’t tone well with the colour scheme of the main pool, but as I’m dressing I note that my clothes coordinate well with the scheme of the changing rooms – pale grey and polar  blue, with the washed-grey of the slate floors working nicely with my silvered Converse. The shower is a bit of a dainty tinkle for a hefty bird, I prefer to be knocked off my feet with an aggressive blast but you can’t (it appears) have everything.

The final shock: a decent coffee in the pool café. We discussed how I would have an Ironman tattoo, if I were Hans. I mean, come ON, I'd have it tattooed on my FACE. We knocked on the cladding with our knuckles on the way out, knock knock, as if we’d recognise the sound and know what material it was. We may have looked a bit odd, but I didn’t give a shit.

* The Ironman challenge is an extraordinary thing for a human to voluntarily put themselves through: a 4km swim followed by a 100km cycle and a marathon run. Can you imagine? No. Me neither. 

** LPs: ‘What’s this big black CD?' my son once asked. It’s called a record, son, I replied. In them days, people only had a few records, so you’d listen to one side, then the other, then back to the first, and so on and on. It makes them stick. FOR EVER. 

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