My favourite pool: Dawn Fraser Baths, Balmain, NSW

Dawn Fraser Baths, on the western side of the Balmain peninsula in Sydney’s inner west, might not have the drama of an ocean pool like Bondi Icebergs with waves crashing over the top of the walls and infinite views off to the horizon. Nor does it have the polished allure of some harbour pools like Woolloomooloo’s Andrew (Boy) Charlton or the spectacle of North Sydney pool, but it has something else that the others don’t.

I first discovered the pool in my early 20s, and would occasionally sneak off there when I was supposed to be working at a local newspaper. Instead of interviewing shopkeepers about parking meters, I would nip down for a quick swim, cool off and forget about things for a while. It’s a good place for that. While the other pools have the glamour, Dawn Fraser has the history and character to keep your mind occupied on other things.

It’s the kind of place where amid the Victorian-era wooden pavilions, bleachers and decking you can squint and dream you’re in another era – the Balmain of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda or an Arthur Streeton painting. It is, after all, the oldest pool and swimming club in Australia, founded in the 1880s. It’s also where Balmain’s most famous daughter spent her youth swimming and training at the pool in preparation for Olympic glory.

Dawn Fraser Baths is also unlike the ocean pools in that as you travel further west along the harbour, the water goes from blue and crystal clear to greenish and a little bit murky. But despite appearances, the water quality is generally good. It’s only after heavy rains, when the collected dog poo and motor oil of an entire suburb is flushed from the streets, that the purity suffers. Nevertheless, it’s cleaner in the harbour now than it has been for a long time, mostly because the heavy industry has packed up and left. Dawn Fraser Bath’s own little golden sandy beach where children now play with buckets and spades was, in the industrial era, dark with coal dust.

From the decking on the far edge of the baths, you can look out across the Cockatoo Island just a short distance away and get a glimpse of that industrial past. The cranes and dry docks are now unused, but thankfully well preserved. Fraser’s own father was a shipyard worker at a time when the population of Balmain was mostly engaged in manual labour. Today Balmain is probably Sydney’s most dramatically gentrified district; from an industrial suburb that was the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party to an area now represented at a state level by a Greens MP.

But that great demographic shift goes unnoticed here. Retired wharfies lie in the sun on the decking next to middle-class parents with toddlers and Gen-Ys with sleeve tattoos. Nearby, ferries and yachts ply the harbor, and nothing, not even children screaming with joy as they launch into the water, seems to disturb the peace. You get the feeling that a pool that has survived for more than 130 years has probably seen it all before.

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