Thursday, 14 February 2013

Back to college

Waltham Forest College, 707 Forest Road  E17 4JB
For the people from the people.
Against: moaning about the state of the changing rooms is beside the point (but hard not to do).

Do you know this pool already? If you look at my map*, the Optimists Swim Tour, which is on the banner at the top of this blog but I repost here if you're so lazy you can't even scroll up a couple of centimeters, you’ll see that it’s got a GREEN ICON. Meaning: it’s been SAVED! Hurrah, for this pool, and a big HURRAH for the people who set about the complex and time-consuming task of saving it - AND WERE VICTORIOUS! I'm pointing heavily at them going 'see? SEE? IT CAN BE DONE' to people in similar circumstances. And if you're not involved in a pool campaign yourself, well heck, (it helps if you read this sentence as if you’re singing a country song) sometimes it’s good to be reminded what ‘standing for something’ can achieve.

People have worked hard to save this pool, it's going to be something pretty special, no? Well yes - and no. I'm glad to include it on the blog because it's a bit off the radar, but - how to put this kindly -  it's for those of us who identified with Beast more than Beauty. Like that story, this one’s  about peering beyond the immediate, not judging on superficial looks. The immediate, here, is an imposting frontage, a grand sweep of steps up to the six-pillared entrance to Walthamstow Forest College, a big old brute of a 1930s building. If this was a film, Government men would scurry up and down the stairs doing veh important but Terribly Secret Government work. You're barely through the front door before the lino on the floor brings that impression sliding to a halt. A security guard pointed me to the basement, where the door to the changing rooms looks like one of many in a long corridor jostling with students. NB there are lots of young people around, this is a working college. Don't let that put you off, as none of them are in the pool. Well, come on, who went swimming when they were at college? Not me, that’s for sure. Ha, I thought, getting fit is a MUG’S game. (Though I did get asked to swim once, by my creative writing tutor. He suggested we all went naked swimming at night, to get ‘ideas’. I think we all know what he meant by ‘ideas’. I declined.)

Beyond the door it’s grotty: tiny cubicles barely enlivened by stripy plastic curtains  of the kind you buy in pound shops, the kind that spook you when they stick to your damp skin. And cold mean showers in a grim and wonky ditch.  You can practically see the veruccas leaping onto your feet.  Up to the pool itself, set in a plain hall where the square-tiled ceiling reflects the square-framed windows. It is a mostly unadorned room,  blank and functional, which makes it feel like a slight step back in time, so used are we to the over-adorning of every available space. The pool is chunky: 30m long and decently wide; it has a cloudy bottom that looks like someone unsuccessfully applied white paint on top of black. Or tried to Tippex something out on a grand scale. There are old black lines on the bottom, which looks and feels like it once was gritty, but the edges have been worn away by years of keen feet. You can just make out 3’6 in faded red paint on the shallow end.  The water has taken on those clouded blooming colours, slightly almost-greenish; yellowish. It doesn’t look like ‘modern’ water, not that crisp fresh blue. At the deep end, a sombre row of tatty white plastic chairs interrupted by two dark chairs make me wish I was a photographer of the kind who does those grotty urban photo-realism type shots.

Did you miss the crucial bit of info? It’s a 30m pool. We love 30m pools in this blog. This one is very warm (there’s a very new red digital read-out up high in one corner, which said 29); it was also very quiet the day I was there – the two girls faffing in the changing rooms about whether or not they would go in, didn’t, natch. So just me and a woman zigzagging her way across in back stroke.

So - it’s a good find, a solid pool excellent for solid no-frills training; it's well-used by groups and open to the public at certain times (check their website – also for buying tickets in blocks, as there’s no entry booth as such beyond the security desk which seemed a little vague). What makes it special is what it represents.

Five years ago, Waltham Forest College announced that their pool was not ‘key to delivery of services’ (shudder at the very phrase)  and decided to shut it. It’s hard to imagine why they would do that  – the pool is within the structural fabric of their building. Of course, as we've established, students don't swim in great numbers. But still, it was a much loved local resource. And because of that, local people stepped up and started a Friends of the Pool group. This group eventually (and we know the hard work and drive contained in one simple ‘eventually’) persuaded the Council to get involved, but the arrangement was short lived and at the end of 2009 the pool was closed. BUT - the Friends of the Pool did not give up (oh god the files and files of meetings and minutes and phone calls and more meetings and quorums and 'would the chair please'  and 'can anyone volunteer' inherent in there) and for six months paid to keep the closed pool ticking over so it didn't fall into ruin. An admirable task. The pool was reopened in April 2010 and a regeneration company - from Manchester, I think -  temporarily ran the pool whilst a not-for-profit Community Interest Company was set up and a thirty year lease negotiated. And so - da daaaaa - the Community Pool was born. £200k  was raised for a new plant room, air handling units and a pool cover: practical things that reduced the running costs by a third. The College still owns the freehold for the site – as I said, it’s built into the integral fabric of the building -  but the lease is now owned and the facility is run by The Community Pool CIC as a completely separate business. The college do not, and will not, spend one penny on the pool. Nice, innit. 

CIC’s are a really interesting way forward for some groups. They're not right for all – as Friends of Mosely Baths pointed out, if the council handed over their building they’d essentially be handed an £8million bill, which would be suicide. But for those where it can work – and there’s quite a few CIC pools round the country – it’s great. Testament to the power of folk. That this pool is up and running - same.  People with the will and effort and the bloomin PASSION for an ordinary place.  Oh, if we could harness that  passion, the passion we swimmers feel, we could run NATIONS.  People have power. We shouldn't forget that. We have power, people. Let's use it wisely.

*NB: PLEASE get in touch if you have new pools in danger to add to the map or to add info  – Twitter is the quickest way, where I’m @jennylandreth 


  1. Hi, great post. One other success story you may want to include on the UK map is Pontypridd Lido in Ynysangharad Park. I do believe there was a local referendum to decide on whether it should re-open and it got the go ahead! Can't wait for it to re-open as it closed just before I was old enough to make use of it.

  2. We have inspected this pool and also had a swim

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  4. This is a decent pool. I've been there a couple of times.

  5. I'm just jumping-in here and holding my nose but...

    Does anyone know a web site with typical costs of opening a derelict swimming pool? It would be great if someone enjoyed writing a blog for dumping notes of this kind of information. My hunch is that pools always cost far less to re-open than council officials estimate, but I say this just to make a splash; I could be wrong.

    1. Good question, veg. I don't think there is such a thing as 'typical costs' if you're talking about derelict pools, because so much will depend on state of dereliction, original materials etc. But agree, it would be a useful resource for those of us keen to campaign for pools to be kept in use/bought back into use. I'm not the person for that job, but there maybe someone out there *looks eagerly around*