Another pool down.
I've been to many pools around London in the course of writing a book about the city's best swimming places. Some of them are excellent, some slightly harder to love. But while I'm not completely below stairs – more hovering on the bottom few steps looking apologetic – there are a few that the likes of me won't ever get into. Believe me, I've tried; I've knocked on the doors of pretty much every private establishment of note. "I bet if I was Pippa Middleton you'd let me in," I grumbled to one receptionist. "Not even Pippa Middleton would get in if she wasn't a member or guest of a member," she said, seeing my grump and raising it with snoot. Imagine if Pippa had heard that. She'd have been devastated.
On top of all these posh places I'm excluded from (I say "I'm" because you could be members of the Hurlingham Club for all I know), there's another lot: the company pool only open to employees. I imagine these to be similar to the private gym pools that proliferate anywhere there's someone making money. They're usually the size of a big sink and less concerned with the quality of the swim than with the peripheral niceties – those desirable little waffle slippers; free product in the showers not just because someone else forgot to pick theirs up. I'm committed to my swimming, but it seemed excessive to me, getting a job with a company simply to have a go in their pool. Particularly if that company was Shell. I tried being corporate once, I wasn't very good at it, and even on a good day I'm not exactly a Shell kind of person. Not that they're crawling over themselves to get at someone with my, let's call it, "portfolio" CV.
You'd never know to look at it, but the Shell Centre on London's South Bank includes in its basement a rather fabulous full-sized pool. Built in 1961, it's open to employees (natch), and a few local groups use it too, though you need more paperwork than for emigrating to Australia. Far below the clippy-cloppy world of corporate suits and heels, beyond the cool marble of the modern reception area, is a journey back in time. To get to the pool (or the staff rifle range, should that be more your thing), you go in lifts and through doors and down stairs of coloured heavy-duty lino; you get a glimpse of your destination through a slatted blind of a window high above. You continue along acres of concrete and corridors lined with dark-varnished 60s plywood, then you pass massive indoor sports halls and gyms until you're deep in the bowels of the building. Maybe you're nearly under the actual Thames by now – exciting! It's like being in Antz.
What you get when you eventually arrive is an architectural and interior-design gem, mostly untouched since it was built, and pristinely maintained. The changing rooms are film-set perfect; there's an old "powder room" for post-swim hair and makeup and blocks of interlinked cubicles made of granite (or more probably concrete). The showers are newer – the horrid colour scheme screams 80s, and looks so brash next to the pastel originals. The loos have a machine dispensing disposable toilet seat covers; you can really picture the place buzzing with neat secretarial staff, all set-hair and 60s skirt-suits. You go through a now-dry footbath, and two shower curtains providing a small bit of privacy, to the pool itself. Wow. The hall is huge; the spectator gallery along one side has the kind of plywood seats that have become fashionable again – these are originals. Everything is period, even down to the timing clock. The ceiling is a high slab of square tiles (probably asbestos); the walls are tiled mushroom and yellow to just above head height, and plain Artex above that. The whole thing feels so meticulous, you start talking with that very particular clipped British information film voice. Careful, Miss Landreth, not to get your hair wet! You have to take notes for that meeting at three!
The pool is great. Very solid, proportionally perfect, it's 33m long with three original diving boards and a proper deep end. It's deep throughout, actually, which tells you it predates the whole concept of "leisure centre". The pool has a beautifully kept mosaic-tiled bottom, and the wall behind the diving boards is tiled a glossy dark blue-green, almost with the depth of colour of swirling oil; there's a motif – a shell – in the top left hand corner. It's so very stylish, it's Mad Men in swimming pool form. It's one of the best, purest examples of 1960s design in London. An utter delight – and it's going.
You'll know by now that I'm a keen campaigner to keep public pools open. So I've surprised myself by caring, too, when I hear about a corporate pool being demolished. The Shell building has been sold and the whole lot is going to be developed, including the pool. It'll be a car park, or house all the building gubbins, the machinery and that, who cares what. I just care that it's going. I know the pool was never "ours" to start with, so it's not "ours" to lose, but nonetheless it feels like a terrible shame. There's talk of a new pool, further up in Coin St, which will be public. So in a sense, we gain from this. But I can tell you now, it won't have a quarter of the charm or elegance of the one here. It'll be an oversized sink, and we'll be grateful.
I wanted to save it; I went so far as to look at the English Heritage procedure for listing buildings, but realised it was way outside the capabilities and remit of a noisy idiot like me. I don't think even Pippa Middleton could click her fingers and say, "Here, someone, save this" to any effect. It's all too late, even for Pippa; it's going under the wrecking ball in the next month. And that is a massive, massive shame.
Oh, and the staff rifle range. Don't feel quite so passionate about that. Someone else can take up that particular cause.