All the Swimming Pools REVIEWED! – LifeLeisure Avondale (revisited)

Published on 26 August 2021 in , , , , ,

The grey brick exterior of Life Leisure Avondale

My children have their swimming lessons on a weekday after school. Because I am working at the same time, I don’t often get to see them do their lessons. But sometimes there’s a rare combination of them having their lessons, and me not being at work, and so I take them.

The last time I did I sat on the spectator bench , chatting to the mum of one of the boys in my son’s year at school. She wasn’t particularly happy, and was about to switch his lessons to a different pool. She wasn’t happy about her son’s progress. Not happy with his teacher. Not happy that you had to pay for lessons termly rather than monthly. And definitely not happy about the state of the changing rooms.

Now I knew nothing about her son’s teacher. Nor her sons progress. And I didn’t personally care about the way the fees were paid, although I could easily understand that for budgeting reasons, paying monthly would be infinitely preferable (indeed they announced a change to monthly payments a few months later, with a planned introduction date that – it turned out – was to be just at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.) But I definitely knew what she meant about the changing rooms. They certainly weren’t the grimmest ones, but they really weren’t great. They’d been built in the 1970s and – besides a coat of paint – had barely been touched since. My other half – who at that point normally took the children to their lessons – was constantly complaining about broken toilets. The showers were cramped and rather weak. And the cubicles didn’t have doors but used shower curtains to “maintain privacy”.

I haven’t seen that mum for a while so I don’t know if her son’s progressing better at his new lessons, but I do know the changing rooms at the pool she was about to move to, were so much better. I’ve never been to said pool, but she extolled the virtues of them in great detail.

The fact is, is that appearances are important. And in a swimming pool, the appearance of the changing areas are arguably more important than the pool itself. If the pool is relatively modern, it will be pretty standard. 25m long, four, five, maybe six lanes wide. If you’re lucky, some windows. Unless the pool has some great architectural features, what else is there to really say? Where as the changing rooms, oh boy. When, in 2019 I decided the content that the internet was crying out for was for me to review all the swimming pools I had been to, changing rooms were a strong focus. The state of the changing areas, the quality of the showers, all that stuff feels important because it’s the bookend of your experience in the pool. The swim is in the middle, and as long as you have space to swim, you probably don’t care too much about the pool. But if you’re changing in a rather grim, grimy changing room, you’ll notice. Especially if you can compare it with a facility that is oh so much nicer.

Five of the pools I reviewed had spectacularly bad changing rooms. Three of them – Active Dukinfield, Active Denton and LifeLeisure Marple – have now closed. Dukinfield got turned into a 24/7 gym. Denton was replaced by a swanky new facility I’ve yet to try. And Marple (the one closest to my heart) abruptly closed in 2018 due to maintenance issues. That leaves two left. LifeLeisure Romiley (the pool all the above refers to) and LifeLeisure Avondale.

LifeLeisure’s pools are owned by Stockport Council. And at the beginning of 2020 a refurbishment was announced for the changing rooms at both Romiley and Avondale. After decades of limited investment, it was time to modernise!

Inevitably the pandemic delayed things far longer than intended, but in April 2021 Avondale’s revamped facilities opened to the public. And two months later I finally got to check them out. If you want, you can read the original review to compare – although I have regurgitated some still relevant bits below.

New changing rooms at Life Leisure Avondale

Pre-pandemic I was a regular visitor to Avondale, usually going there every Monday evening. Built in 1977, Avondale is in an area of Stockport called Cheadle Heath. The centre is hidden up a side road, located in the same grounds as a secondary school, and strangely is not signposted at the entrance. Unlike the school.

But carry on against, perhaps, your better judgement, and you’ll find a rather nondescript, boxy building made out of dark grey bricks. Borderline black. Perhaps this is why Avondale, from the outside, looks rather more dated than some older facilities. Dark grey bricks are a bit of a seventies thing. Used with abandon until someone realised how naff they looked, and quickly stopped.

After walking past a reception area, you reach the changing rooms. Prior to refurbishment they could best be described as plain and utilitarian. Different rooms for each gender. I can’t tell you about the ladies, but the gents had a slightly wonky floor meaning the benches on it leaned at a perturbing angle. The trough urinal was, rather oddly, open for all to see, whilst the showers were in a small cramped room hidden away. And the lockers. Oh boy the lockers. 1970s style metal things where the coin mechanism had been ripped out and a hasp and staple bolted on crudely for the use of padlocks. They looked like they’d been found in a skip, and then put to use.

All that is now gone. The previous ladies and gents changing rooms have been combined with the adjoining (and equally horrible) gym changing rooms to make a bright, modern, changing village. Where once there were no cubicles anywhere, now there are cubicles for all. And that’s not all.

Go through the changing room entranceway – in normal times designed for two-way traffic – and you’ll immediately find free hairdryers and lots of them. I’ve actually no idea if there previously were hairdryers at Avondale. My hair doesn’t warrant their use. But if there were, I bet they weren’t free. There are still some changing rooms in Stockport that charge you 20p to dry your hair. No longer at Avondale.

Go deeper in and you’ll find a slightly confusingly laid out collection of lockers and cubicles. There’s clusters of smaller cubicles, and larger ones for family use. There’s presumably some logic to the layout, but it wasn’t signposted on my first visit, and I struggled to get my head round it all. Also a challenge was finding the toilets, which are very discretely sited. So discrete I wandered round the place about three times before I gave up and asked a member of staff where they were. The answer was tucked in corners near the entrance – gents on the left, ladies on the right.

Beyond the cubicles is a “wet zone” with lots of shower cubicles. Which is good as many pools don’t seem to ever have enough. Then go on a bit more and you find the pool entrance, complete with some open showers for a quick pre or post swim rinse. There’s even, larks, a Suitmate swimsuit machine. Those noisy machines that extract all the water out of your wet swimming gear. I’ve been to every swimming pool run by Stockport Council and no other pool has one. Avondale’s gone seriously up in the world.

The decor is simple, but tasteful. A greyish wood effect for lockers and cubicles; white tiling for the walls. It looks swanky. It feels nice to use the facilities. In a nod to the past changing rooms, you still need a padlock to use the lockers. Although given most of Stockport’s leisure centres have lockers that refuse to accept new pound coins, it’s probably for the best.

All that said, what of the pool itself? Well the single pool it’s a pretty normal looking 25m pool with five lanes. The walls are decked it in those plain white tiles so beloved of municipal swimming pool designers. There’s door height windows dotted around on one side, although someone has had the bright idea of putting promotional banners for things like swimming lessons in front of each one, thus ensuring that next to no natural daylight gets in the place.

Oh and there’s the deep end situation.

Now there are two main kinds of swimming pool. Those with a deep end and a shallow end. And those where the pool depth stays consistent all the way along. Pretty much every private pool I’ve ever been in is in the latter category. And pretty much every council pool I’ve been in is in the former.

Avondale doesn’t break this rule. It’s got a shallow end. And it has a deep end. But it is odd because the deep end is the only deep end I know where I can stand up without problems. The deep end is a mere 1.5m deep. To put that in contrast, most pools are 2m deep. At least. Avondale’s situation is just weird. No wonder there’s a large “NO DIVING” sign – a rule strictly enforced by staff. I know as I once witnessed a child getting told off for practising the kind of simple dive you learn in swimming lessons.

The refurbishment hasn’t touched the pool area much. The entrances to the old changing rooms have simply been reused for new ones. The only real difference is one doorway appears to have been inexpertly filled in. Rather than tile it (maybe they couldn’t match the tiles) they’ve filled it in with painted plasterboard or something. Which feels like it’ll be a recipe for disaster down the line. But whatever.

When I first reviewed Avondale, I gave it two out of five splashes. Everything felt dated, and unloved. That’s no longer true. Whilst the exterior, reception and pool areas have barely changed, the experience of the changing rooms makes a huge difference. It’s that bookending of your experience. Suddenly the place looked loved again. Avondale’s certainly become a far nicer place to visit.