All The Swimming Pools REVIEWED – Oasis Leisure Centre, Covent Garden
Around 2001 I was working in central London in the BBC’s offices in Bush House. And I decided I needed to do more exercise. I’d been diagnosed with asthma a few years earlier and if there’s one thing you get told if you have asthma, it’s that exercise can help. It was probably a bit of a New Years Resolution, but there were good intentions.
I’ve always liked swimming so that seemed like a good idea. I found out there was a council swimming pool in Covent Garden, about fifteen minutes walk from the office, and concocted a plan to get up early once or twice a week, and go for a swim before work.
I duly arrived at the Oasis Sports Centre in Covent Garden one morning, and did my swim in its 25m indoor pool. It was fine, but it was very busy. It was a bit hard to get space. The next time I went was the same. But walking out after one morning of swimming I noticed something. There was another pool. It was outside. Yes, right near the heart of Covent Garden exists an outdoor swimming pool. And it was noticeably empty. So the next time I decided to give it a go.
I went many times. And it was wonderful. Sometimes it was just me and the lifeguard, which seemed crazy as the pool was heated. Although perhaps it wasn’t the pool that was putting people off. One morning I darted from the indoor changing areas to the pool whilst much of the poolside was covered in snow. Still, the swim was wonderful.
I’d started going in winter, but as the year went on, the pool got busier. And by the time summer arrived, it was getting crowded. See, more people turned up. People who had been on a hot, crowded tube train and thought it would be nice to refresh in an outdoor pool before work. All the serious swimmers were in the indoor pool, and I ended up retreating there myself. But it was even busier than it had been before. It was too busy and I got out of the habit of going. I kept saying I’d restart when the weather cooled down but I never did. It took me a few more years before I restarted my exercising again. By the time I did, I was working in west London, and the Oasis was somewhere I barely went near.
But it was a place that stuck in my mind. I like swimming outdoors. It’s nice. Refreshing. Revitalising. So when I found myself in central London one evening recently with nothing to do, I found myself looking at the pool timetable. It was about a mile and a quarter from my hotel. Seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. I logged onto the website, booked myself a swim at 7:40, and went to check it out.
Quite why an outdoor swimming pool ended up in the heart of central London is an interesting tale. There are – it is true – a lot of outdoor swimming pools in the capital, like Tooting Bec lido. And then there’s the bathing ponds in places like Hampstead. But that the outdoor pool built by the Borough of Holborn, was never meant to be outdoors at all. The site, tucked off EndellStreet, about five minutes from Tottenham Court Road, had two indoor swimming pools in the 1850s. The Bloomsbury Baths and Washhouses were rebuilt as Holborn Baths between 1900 and 1902, again with two covered pools as well as washing facilities – this being a time when many houses didn’t have indoor plumbing.
Modernisation followed in the 1930s, with major redevelopment work starting in 1937, but what became World War II put a dampner on things and work was halted. And when it restarted after the war, the money simply wasn’t there to complete the job. To reduce costs, the site was converted into an outdoor pool, with gas decontamination rooms left over from the war being used as changing rooms. The Borough of Holborn ended up with an outdoor pool more by accident than grand design.
The facility present today is much indebted to work from the 1960s when the outdoor pool was reduced in size and a second pool – built indoors this time – was added next door. Both the pools in the complex date back to that time, although the main entrance now sits at the ground floor of a 1980s office block. London being the city that’s forever changing.
It’s rather a non-distinct office block, and to from the outside you’d be hard pushed to tell there was a leisure centre even there. The entrance is unassuming, and rather overshadowed by the hustle and bustle of central London. Especially of the pub next door whose customers spill out onto the pavement on a balmy evening.
Checking in, I tried to remember where everything was after 20 years, battling against unobvious signage. My abiding memories was that the gents changing rooms were down some steps so I followed them only to find myself next to a door marked ‘Female Changing Rooms’. It must be said that the changing facilities were being refurbished back in 2001, and the gents moved location even in the few months I was there. A sign declared refurbishment was again ongoing, which may explain why there were several flooring tiles absent from the top of the steps. Or perhaps not.
Eventually I found the right changing rooms – further down the corridor – finding a large open space with wood effect lockers on the room. If you want privacy, you’re at the wrong place. I note with slight dismay what is needed for the lockers too. A 20p. And you don’t get it back. When you’ve finished, the coin gets put into a coin box. It’s a wheeze operator Better use in other London pools like the Janet Adoke in Shepherds Bush. And it’s annoying because you can’t escape it. No doubt it was done so they could claim they were keeping swim prices cheaper, but there’s no way round it. Your swimming session may cost you £6.85, but if you have to pay 20p to keep your belongings safe, then it doesn’t mater what you claim. The cost is £7.05 and not a penny less. And yes, a swim here is expensive. But you’re in central London, so what else can you really expect?
But anyway, the pools. Well pool. The indoor one – 25m long – was closed, and peeking through the shuttered door, all I could make out was cream walls. But I wasn’t fussed about that. I wanted to be outdoors, and I passed through the glass door to the outdoor pool area.
Before I leap in, lets take in our surroundings. Behind me, the aforementioned office block. To the right, a row of low-rise flats, built in such a way that there’s an entrance way on the pool side so no one is looking out on bathers from their living room. The indoor pool’s visible through glass windows to the left and there’s more flats in the distance at the far end. There’s an outdoor seating area, a sun terrace, trees and some potted plants. Not visible is a sauna in a wooden building right at the far end. A modern facility but which also looks back to the original use of the site as a Turkish baths in the 18th century.
The pool itself? Well that’s 27.5m long, a figure that begins to make sense when you consider it’s quite old and 27.5m is 30yards. There’s three lanes, tiled above the water line in white, and below in a curiously faded pale blue. It’s also notably deep. A sign declares it’s 3.5m deep and I’ve no reason to disagree. It does seem rather over the top in terms of depth. Presumably there was a diving board in the distant past, although there’s none there now.
Despite it’s name, it doesn’t really look like an oasis. It’s presumably not been re-tiled for a few years and some of the white mortar’s gone black. There’s some muck on the pool floor, and centre operators Better thought a good way to improve the ambiance of the place would be to shove a few wheelie bins in view near the deep end.
Lowering myself into the water, it’s noticeable how chilly the water for a heated pool. OK, heated pools that are outdoors don’t tend to have the best heat retention. But swimming a few metres and I’m hit with a warmer patch of water, suggesting the heat distribution may not be the best. This is even more noticeable in the deep end where the water gets even more chilly. Well with a water depth of twice my height, there’s a lot to heat up. If the council ever empty the pool for refurbishment work, one option may well be to raise the floor level up a metre or so.
But hey, you don’t expect swimming in the outdoors to be perfect. Outdoor swiming’s all about feeling the breeze on your cheek, the cooler air when you raise your head out of the water. It’s quite glorious, even if the pool area is looking distinctly on the shabby side. And when all is said and done, the water temperature is positively balmy compared to unheated outdoor pools like Tooting Bec Lido.
There’s no doubt that my swim at the Oasis was invigorating and reviving. From its like area, surrounded by buildings, you’d never really know you were in the heart of Britain’s biggest city. I come out of the pool at the end, feeling wonderful, wishing there was an outdoor pool near me.
Then I head back inside, back to the open plan changing rooms where that feeling of shabbyness comes to front again. The showers have mysteriously stopped working. One guy, covered in foam, stands patiently waiting for it to be restored. It eventually does restart but by that point I’m mostly dry again.
That seems to sum up the Oasis. Work here is needed. But ultimately if you want an outdoor swim in a heated pool and you’re in London, it’s hard to beat.
Oasis Sports Centre is at operated by Better, and can be found at 32, Endell Street, Covent Garden
London WC2H 9AG.