All the Swimming Pools REVIEWED! – Ironmonger Row Baths, Islington, London

Published on 3 June 2024 in , , ,

Ironmonger Row Baths, London
Ironmonger Row Baths, Islington, London

Over the years I have travelled a lot for work purposes. Although usually to one city. London. My employer’s got offices all round the UK but since moving to Greater Manchester in 2016, my work visits have consisted of going to London and coming back. Sorry Glasgow, Cardiff, Newcastle and Birmingham. I’ve yet to have a need to visit you.

When I’m popping down for an overnight stay, I will usually book myself into a hotel that is a) within my employer’s hotel rates policy, b) that includes breakfast, c) that’s within a few miles of the office, and d) is, if at all possible, reasonably close to a swimming pool. I’m usually an early riser, and if you’re awake at 6am, why not pop for a swim before work? As such, I’ve got a roster of reasonable hotels I often visit that I know are near some decent council owned pools that I can just rock up at.

This time though someone else booked my hotel room, leaving me in a completely different part of London to where I normally stay. Also it was a hotel that didn’t offer breakfast. But that’s a whole other issue.

Looking at the excellent Poolfinder website, I scoured the local area. Endless private gyms, and hotel pools. But about a mile away was Ironmonger Row Baths.

I knew of it from many years earlier when I still lived in London, and worked about a mile or so away. At the time I was a member of Virgin Active and there were two of their pools nor far from the office. But a colleague used Ironmonger Row baths and said it was a lovely pool.

A decade after learning this information, it was time to check them out.

Ironmonger Row Baths opened its doors in 1931. Opened by Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Council, it offered a number of washing machines, and 40 baths for men, 40 for women. There were drying horses and electric irons. A one stop washing spot. A place for people to wash themselves and their clothes at a time when indoor sanitation was still very rare.

What there wasn’t, at first, was a swimming pool. This came in a second phase of building in 1938, along with a Turkish Baths. First cleanliness, now exercise and socialising. And the place has been servicing the community ever since. The slipper baths have gone, and there’s now a gym and squash courts. Until very recently the website even still listed a public laundry, although between me starting typing this piece (early May 2024) and it being published, that disappeared.

From the outside, Ironmonger Row Baths is quite a simple looking building that simultaneously manages to also look rather grand. Nice curved arches over the windows, big windows, and a vertical sign saying BATHS. It looks like a heritage feature, although looking on Google Streetview suggests its modern.

Then there’s a very, distinctly un-1930s looking entrance with ‘IRONMONGER ROW BATHS’ engraved in the stone. There’s also some incredibly small Better branding – the baths being run by Better on behalf of the modern Islington Council.

The entrance itself is rather new, dating back to a major refurbishment completed in 2012, when the main entrance was relocated to its current position in the building. It leads to a rather cavernous entrance hall, with stairs and doors off to different parts of the building, and a large window overlooking what I was there to see. The swimming pools.

Down at the end stand the changing rooms which remain single sex. Mixed sex changing villages began to become common in council-owned pools in the early 1990s – individual cubicles offering a more accessible, inclusive and flexible changing environment – and many older facilities have since been modernised to include them in the past two decades. But curiously not in London. Of the pools I have visited in the last decade, none of them now have single sex changing rooms. In London, none of them have had mixed sex facilities.

Obviously I’m unable to speak about the ladies, but the gents changing facilities are an open space with a decor and style that is very much of the era it was last refurbished. Turquoise coloured lockers line the walls, along with beige tiles and cream walls. They’re 12 years old and arguably look their age. There was a slight hint of tiredness about them, and the first locker I tried to use, didn’t actually work properly. I put my trolley token in, closed the door, turned the key, and… well nothing happened. I tried a different token. Same problem. Different locker, all fine.

And whilst I saw trolley token, what I really mean is one of my old pound coins that I kept as a stash for such situations. For whilst the latest two-tone pound coin was introduced in 2017, and the old round one withdrawn quickly after, Ironmonger Row is one of many, many, many places that never updated their lockers. In fact the locker coin box still shows a pound coin symbol. Seriously Islington Council, it’s been seven years. Time to update. If you’re worried about the expense – and future issues – just replace the coin based system with one that uses padlocks. This has been done at two two leisure centres near me. Old coin box off, new padlock mechanism on. You can even keep the same locker doors, and make money selling padlocks. Still, at least they didn’t do what several Better facilities do, and charge you for using a locker. At Ironmonger Row you at least get your token or old pound coin, back.

After a trip to the toilets, where there was no soap (yeah, not making the best impression dudes), I showered and went to the pool hall.

And what a pool hall. This is a statement pool space. Very 1930s looking in that its simply designed, but definitely elegant. The roof is high and curved, and there’s large windows to the side to let in the light. A long skylight runs down the length of the hall too, giving the place a bright, airy feel, full of natural light. Off to the side is spectator seating where more elegance can be found – all wood panelled seating. There’s something almost like a Presbyterian church style about the place. Simple, glorious, beautiful.

The main pool is a five lane one (a 15m children’s pool hides behind a glass screen), thoroughly modernised in the not-so-recent refurbishment. This is no 90-year old looking pool. The water level is the same as the floor level, and the white tiling is simple but in good condition. There’s also access facilities for wheelchair users.

On my visit the pool had been split into one double lane (for slow swimmers), and three single lanes (two for medium swimmers, and one for fast.) Finding my own swimming speed to be somewhere a tad too slow for the fast lane, but a tad too fast for medium, I ended up moving around between the three single lanes a fair bit as swimmers came and went. But at a 30.5m length (or 100ft as it would have opened as), there was plenty of room.

The shallow end came in about a metre deep, but the deep end was, well, very deep. The sign on the wall said it was 3.7m deep. Which must make it the deepest deep end I’ve ever swam in. I was getting hints of vertigo just looking down as I swam over it, and I didn’t know what kind of thing was even possible. It gave the impression that the pool was designed to have a diving board on it. Wikipedia told me that at in the 1960s the baths was home to Highgate Diving Club, and was where Bronze Olympic medal winner Brian Phelps trained, so presumably there once was a board. But if there was, it’s long gone.

Diving board or not, Ironmonger Row Baths is a lovely pool and I did many lengths there. It does feel a bit like you’re swimming in a chapel, bit that makes it all the better. And being that just a little bit longer in length, you get some great exercise. This grand experience is, however, really let down by the changing facilities, which look shabby and run-down in comparison to the rest of the centre.

Ironmonger Row Baths can be found at 1 Norman Street, Islington, EC1V 3AA. At the time of my visit, it was run by Better on behalf of the London Borough of Islington. You can find historical information about the baths on the Baths and Wash Houses Historical Archive website.