Review: Marshall Street Baths v Kentish Town Pool

The art deco Marshall Street Baths which have recently re-opened. A beautiful swimming experience but not cheap.

The art deco Marshall Street Baths which have recently re-opened. A beautiful swimming experience but not cheap.

Last week was a great week for checking out newly renovated swimming pools in London.

At one point  it looked like both Marshall Street and Kentish Town pools were going to be turned into flats and the pools lost to the public forever.

After years of neglect the beautiful Marshall Street Baths were closed down in 1997. Kentish Town Baths (also known as St Pancras Baths) followed ten years later with most pessimistically predicting that it would never re-open.

Things looked bleak for a while. But thanks to public pressure, both have now been renovated to a high standard, each with £25 million investment.  Though the back story behind the pools is similar, the pools are markedly different. While Marshall Street serves a fairly upmarket Soho clientele (mostly media folk it seems) with upmarket prices too boot (£5.25 for an adult swim), Kentish Town attracts a much more diverse audience reflecting the diverse local area. It’s also a bit cheaper at just £4.05 for an adult swim (£1.50 for kids).

What’s more, the two complexes are also very different in size. Marshall Street has one Grade II art deco main pool (several apartments were also created as part of the refurbishment) while Kentish Town Leisure Centre as it’s now called comprises two main pools – the 33m Willes Pool and the 25m Grafton Pool plus a state of the art gym. However, both sit within large Victorian complexes.

Art deco splendour

When I went to Marshall Street, admittedly only a couple of days after it opened, it was like I’d arrived in paradise. Apart from the high price, almost everything else about the experience was perfect. Lifeguards greeted me on my arrival and were happy, almost proud, to answer my questions about the development. Among the things that I learned was that the advanced filtration system meant that chlorine levels were much lower than in other pools.

Certainly the water was clean and cool, and the length of the pool (around 33m) was much longer than you would expect in the centre of the city. Changing rooms were clean though the communal area felt a little like a Town Hall.

In many ways Marshall Street reminds me of the Porchester Spa in Paddington where I have interviewed several Speedo athletes, but it is much, much prettier with its marble lined walls and feature lighting. It’s also a lot more convenient for Goggleblog’s West End offices!

Water carry on

Compare this to my experience of Kentish Town Baths, now Kentish Town Leisure Centre, 3pm on a Sunday afternoon. There was a large queue to get in and at 3.15pm when I reached the front of the queue, I was told we weren’t allowed to take our son into either pool – the Grafton Pool was too busy and the Willes Pool too deep for children.

Ten minutes later and the woman on the desk changed her mind after much protestation and agreed to let us in the Grafton Pool, but already I was beginning to regret bringing the family down for a ‘leisurely’ swim. The experience in the changing rooms wasn’t much better (predictably the family changing area was busy which meant we had to get changed separately) but things went from bad to worse when we reached the pool.

A group of about 10 teenagers were doing their utmost to spoil it for everyone else by doing all the things restricted on the ‘Will Patrons Kindly Refrain From’ poster – everything that is apart from ‘petting’. There was, however, plenty of  bombing, diving, running, shouting and acrobatics. Eventually the harassed lifeguard had to chuck out the main culprit – a terrible swimmer who thought he was Michael Phelps – but not before he got a load of abuse from him and his mates.

While swimming in The Grafton Pool was one of the more horrendous swimming experiences I’ve had, by contrast the larger Willes Pool was much better. For a start it looks absolutely fantastic with its timber beams, viewing gallery and high roof – slightly reminiscent of an old church. The water was much cleaner than the Grafton too (there seemed to be bits of plastic floating in the Grafton) and a degree or two cooler as well.

So which is the best pool? Marshall Street or Kentish Town. Well really it’s difficult to compare. When I was at Marshall Street it was the middle of a weekday while at Kentish Town it was a busy weekend during the summer holiday. Marshall Street looks quite glamorous but I have fond memories of Kentish Town from when I used to work in the area (though I did get my locker broken into the last time I was there before it shut down, leaving me naked apart from a pair of Speedos in the foyer,  phoning my wife to bring me clothes.)

To be honest, I hope they both do really well and never, ever face closure again. If nothing else I hope the teenage boys who were playing up at Kentish Town get some proper teaching and learn the joy of swimming as both a form of exercise and relaxation.

Guardian: Kentish Town Baths re-open

Westminster City Council

Camden Council