Do you remember where you learnt to swim? Was it a summer holiday in the sea, a pool in the back garden or was it in a communal pool?
For me (Ash) it was the latter and precisely Clissold Park Swimming Pool, but not the modern, sleek building that stands there today, no the pool I learnt to swim in was a run down, cold, Victorian public baths, where each week I’d attempt to cross the 10m pool and more often than not sink and surface chocking up gallons of water!
Thankfully that has all gone now and been replaced not once, but twice by modern versions and last week we returned to the site of my near drowning to see what has changed.
Clissold Road and the pool in it used to be a squalid place, the grand Georgian houses at either end were run down and a giant Hippy Commune/Squat, the school opposite then known as Clissold Park was a school for reprobates and the Public Baths were a dismal place where the local kids spent most of their Summer Holidays splashing about in the Teaching Pool and winter months having swimming lessons, fearing the deep middle and hating getting changed after in the freezing cold, dreary, changing rooms, where the floor was always soaking wet and concussions from slipping over was a common thing, let alone kids being pulled from the pool hooked up in that giant Hula Hoop on a stick the lifeguards used to use.
Adults and those that could swim used to frequent the Main pool, a 25m pool with a 5m deep end, this is where my dad tried and failed to teach me to swim by literally throwing me in the deep end and then having to come in after me as I sank.
We would leave, change in the freezing changing rooms and head for the canteen and get cups of Bovril, that is still a sense memory, the only thing that ever warmed us after the freezing afternoon in the pool!
These are the memories that haunt me and so although I have known the whole place had been raised to the ground a number of years ago I am still haunted by the place.
The renovated Clissold Park Swimming Pool was re-opened in 2000, Which is when I (Bob) first heard of this place. When I went, it stunk of Chlorine, enough to eat through jewellery, but there was a wave machine and lots of curving swirling slides. Although I only ever went there once because of the toxicity of the water. Back then it was heralded as a marvel of modern architecture and promptly closed again when they realised that the roof leaked and started to collapse, the whole inside steamed up and started to rot from the condensation.
The road it is in seemed to fair much better, the squat was cleared out and those old dilapidated houses were cleaned up and painted and wow what a difference, of course they are still opposite that school, now Stoke Newington Secondary and is still a site to learn how to open cars without a key, how to buy drugs and other useful life skills!
But the Leisure Centre re-opened once more a number of years later and has continued to grow and evolve since, but we haven’t been near the place in all that time, simply because of its old reputation and having used other sites like Highbury Fields and Ironmonger Row, but with The Fields Pool burnt down and Ironmonger Row a poorly laid out warren of a place we decided to visit the new and improved Better Gym in Stoke Newington.
So what did we find? Well first impressions were of a sleek, modern building, seemingly much improved from anything that was there before, a large open entrance with the sound of school kids screaming and runner on treadmills, although the kids were visible the joggers were not. The reception was a bit of a problem, the automatic doors in the entrance we out of order and so we had to enter via the exit and climb under a barrier to get to the reception, I’d wonder how some of the less able bodied patrons managed that exercise!
Once paid and in we found a large concrete, big chunks of it and a number of seating areas where parents seem intent of changing their children rather than using the changing rooms!
The sign to the changing rooms lead us to an area with seats and big signs telling us to remove outdoor shoes before entering the changing rooms, this seemed a strange request, but we did and took to the separate changing rooms, gone are the unisex changing rooms of the 2000 site, that caused problems for the local Jewish and Muslim communities and was one of the many things criticised in the old place.
The men’s changing rooms are well appointed with ample lockers of all shapes and sizes, some you fit a paddle in or an annoying school child maybe! I walked in and in my bare feet slipped over, crashing on the wet floor and creaking my knee – it seems those ghost are still playing the same old tricks, even in their new home! So I am not a fan of the shoe policy and it seems that some of the patrons don’t take notice of the request a number of men in the changing area had some strange habits, two of them spread out their belongings across the mirror area, leaving all their clothes and stuff out while they pranced about, shouting and making a nuisance of themselves, while a number of men wandered up and down the long corridor between the lockers and the changing rooms and showers, completely naked seemingly with no intention of getting dressed or going to swim.
The Ladies was much like the men’s but instead of men being strange there was a woman singing Christmas carols and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas!
We left the changing rooms and headed to the pool, having deposited the non refundable 20p in a giant locker and stowed away our stuff. Stopping to notice some of the usual rather mouldy and rusty pipework and the shower area, thankfully the showers near the pool were much better, for dousing yourself before entering the pool itself.
As for that pool, it still sits over the site of the ghost of the old one, but is vastly better (Or is that Better) at 2m deep throughout and (while we were there) split into 6 lanes though one was taken away when teaching children (for all of 10 mins) it was clean and effective. We swam for about an hour, using the provided floats and swimming aids, even borrowing a pair of goggles as I had forgotten mine!
We showered and dried off, none of the memories of that old cold changing room, with the drafty windows plagued me thankfully, they even have free to use hair dryers (if you can get to it over the Turkish guys strewn trainers and bags!) – I forgot about the no shoe policy (Sorry!) and left to take a look about the rest of the facility.
There is a vast sports hall, marked out for Basket Ball and Badminton, seemingly chair aerobics too! There are squash courts and a large gym too (Although I could not get in to see it as you have to have a pass to get in the door, but I could see there is a lot of seating over the pool for swim meets and races too and a large number of running machines behind these, so runners and static cyclists can get exhausted while watching the pool, Downstairs is a weights room and XTC Strap thingy’s area!
Looking around I found the Mezzanine, a strange area and the answer to the noise of runners we heard when we entered, an outdoor running machine area sits over the bike park, so runners can run in the fresh air. Hold on – Is it just me or is that a bit stupid, there is a park less than a 100m away with a running track around the outside, allowing for a 1.5mile circuit (I know I used to run it with my dad when I was a kid and hated it then as much as I hate running now!) So why run on the spot on a treadmill outside and pay for the pleasure too?
We were warned away from the coffee shop with the many screaming and crying children because it apparently is abysmal and best avoided and I bet they don’t even serve cups of bovril either!
So overall, Clissold Park Better Gym was a surprise and a nice one too, we will be back and soon we suspect, given the choices of gyms in the area, it’s an easy decision to pick this over the rest!
(I may not remove shoes before entering the changing area next time though!)
Well that’s it for this time. Please subscribe and came back for more next time and until then,