The Definitive Rating of Hackney Swimming Pools

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THE DEFINITIVE RATING OF HACKNEY SWIMMING POOLS

WORDS BY KIT CALESS

Avid swimmer Kit Caless gives us the lowdown on the good, the bad and the ugly of Hackney swimming pools.
When I was learning to swim in the 1990s I had an instructor who had really hairy toes. He would stand at the edge of the pool, feet at our eye level and watch us struggle through armbanded breaststroke widths. The pool water was so heavily chlorinated the skin under my fingernails would sting by the end of our session, but staring at those big hairy plates still made me feel unclean.
Luckily, the public swimming pool game has changed in the two decades since, and now Hackney has some fine ass looking bodies of water. I have sampled all the aquatic delights this corner of London has to offer. Like a watery western, I present, the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, the Outside and the Abandoned.
The Good: Clissold Leisure Centre
Hackney’s swimming pools more or less reflect the class lines that run through the borough, so there’s no surprise that Stoke Newington’s Clissold Park pool is the fanciest. It’s also, quite objectively, the best pool in the borough.
I don’t live in Stoke Newington. In fact I live closer to the King’s Hall pool, but I cycle to Clissold because the swim there is excellent. Once you are in the changing rooms you know you’re in gold star territory. There’s no bloke blow-drying his arse hairs in front of the mirror, no dirt on the tile floors and the lockers aren’t dented. It’s all very… nice. This is the sort of changing room where you overhear men talking about the latest branding campaign they did for Ocado. Clissold’s finest do like to walk around the changing room stark bollock naked though, like it’s a Finnish sauna after a great towel robbery.

Mornings are not for the weak. Women with tumble turns and nose clips barrel past you at Thorpe speed before heading out to important jobs in town.

The pool itself is lovely. It’s hygienic but not overloaded with chlorine. The only thing that stings is the fact that everyone at Clissold is a better swimmer than you. Faster, harder, stronger. The men are lithe, the women powerful and everyone’s stroke technique is on fleek. I still oscillate between the medium and the fast lane depending on the time of day. When the Stoke Newington Dads are out in full effect between 6 and 7:30 p.m., front crawling out their job stresses, I find myself struggling to keep up in the medium lane. Mornings are not for the weak. Women with tumble turns and nose clips barrel past you at Thorpe speed before heading out to important jobs in town.
The pool closes at 10 p.m., but that swim between 9 p.m. and 10 is probably the most euphoric. Almost alone, you will find tranquility in the waters and a deep peace of mind.
Clissold Leisure Centre, 63 Clissold Road, London N16 9EX. Phone: 020 724 5574. 
The Bad: Britannia Leisure Centre
I sometimes play squash at the Britannia. It’s got some great courts, and it’s cheap. Recently, I thought I would visit the swimming pool just to mix it up a little bit.
Around 1 p.m. I sauntered in, scanned my Better membership card and went straight for the changing rooms. A few swift moves and I was out of the changing rooms and heading to the pool with my swim hat, goggles and earplugs ready. Imagine my surprise when I turned the corner and was confronted with a floor to ceiling glass wall and a gaggle of parents on the benches, watching their children taking lessons on the other side. There was also a water slide and a crocodile thing with a springboard in the pool. Luckily, no parents turned their heads to see the fully-grown speedoed man behind them.
The Britannia pool is not for adult swimmers who want to do lengths. It’s a leisure pool and a training space for young people. I didn’t stick around long enough to see if the instructor had hairy toes.
Britannia Leisure Centre, 40 Hyde Road, London N1 5JU. Phone: 020 7729 4485. 
The Ugly: King’s Hall Leisure Centre
I love King’s Hall Leisure Centre. It’s no-nonsense, down to earth, tucked away in Clapton and only locals use it. But this pool is all three of the ugly sisters combined compared to Clissold’s natatory Cinderella.
The pool is 25 metres with a low ceiling and old ass tiles. I swim here when I’m feeling unfit: King’s Hall has a shallow end, which means you get the brand noobiest of noobs in the water, so when you’re unfit you feel like royalty (hence the name of the building I guess). But when you’re in shape, this place is a no go. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for people learning how to swim, but when the fastest swimmer in the fast lane is tattooed old geezer wheezing his way through the breaststroke without even dipping his head under, you ain’t gonna break a sweat.

Imagine my surprise when I turned the corner and was confronted with a floor to ceiling glass wall and a gaggle of parents on the benches, watching their children taking lessons on the other side.

The changing room showers at King’s Hall are unisex. It’s a mild problem, because you’ve got to wash yourself properly after you’ve been doing lengths. The chlorine in any swimming pool will dry out your skin, leading to itching later. A unisex shower, quite reasonably, means no full nakedness. Which means you ain’t cleaning the most important bits. I always shower again at home after swimming here.
King’s Hall Leisure Centre, 39 Lower Clapton Road, London E5 0NU. Phone: 020 8985 2158. 
The Outside: London Fields Lido
The outdoor lido is in Hackney’s most fashionable patch of grass, London Fields. You’ll find regulars here all months of the year, but in the summer when the great and good of east London’s catwalk are barbecuing bison burgers in the park, the pool doesn’t half get busy. It’s a wonderful swim really early in the morning, but forget it on the weekend.
The pool is set to the west of the cricket pitch, and the only time I swim in the Lido is during the winter when it’s too cold for a lot of people to take the plunge, despite the fact the water is heated. I love the feeling of being in the warm(ish) water, breaking the surface to get a blast of cold on my face. Lidos are a great London tradition, from Tooting Bec to Finchley, and London Fields is an excellent example.
London Fields Lido, London Fields West Side, London E8 3EU. Phone: 020 7254 9038. 
The Abandoned: Haggerston Baths
Haggerston Baths is a Grade II listed building designed by Alfred Cross. It’s been closed since the year 2000, with the council perennially promising to reinvest. It is now marked for a £25 million development into luxury flats. You can’t go in and visit because the site is too dangerous for the public.
However, if you can get inside (and I wouldn’t publicly recommend this, of course) you will find an abandoned, drained pool covered in graffiti. It’s an eerie space when daylight bleeds through the smeary windows.
Don’t dive into the empty pool head-first though, obviously.
Haggerston Baths photograph courtesy BNP Paribas Real Estate UK. 
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