Swimming Shorts: The YMCA Pool At Tottenham Court Road

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 23 months ago
Swimming Shorts: The YMCA Pool At Tottenham Court Road
A 1970s workout at Central YMCA

The legacy of the Industrial Revolution has its tarry tentacles in all sorts of nooks and crannies. If it weren't for all those spinning mules and internal combustion engines, London wouldn't have been inundated with so many souls from the countryside and London draper George Williams wouldn't have been inspired to set up the Young Men's Christian Association at a spot on Great Russell Street in 1844.

As it is, we're swimming in Williams' 25m-long, heated, legacy — the dark blue and black-tiled pool at Central YMCA. Of course, the YMCA didn't have a pool at first — the bibles would have got wet — but by 1912 there was a gym, and swimming followed. Despite its name, YMCA's early remit went much further than ensuring the minds and souls of young Christians were in good nick; in 1888 it opened its doors to the Jewish community — this, at a time when libraries were mostly private. That altruistic, embracing spirit has continued; since 1997 Central YMCA has run groups for those affected by HIV. It also extends a hand to people with cerebral palsy and various other conditions.

This generosity is housed within Edward Sykes's brutalist block, which rose from the ashes of the original, flouncy YMCA in 1975. Sykes's vision might not be a looker from the outside — it's a vision realised almost entirely in elephant grey — but this is probably the least brutal of all brutalist architecture. As you descend the flights of stairs each floor opens itself up to you like a concrete petal, inviting you to have a game of badminton, a go at aerobics, or to take a swim.    

It's no coincidence Sykes made the pool visible from the lobby (and that therefore you have to plod up two flights of stairs from the changing rooms to get to it); it's the liquid heart of the Central YMCA. Even if people aren't in the water, they're musing over it while sipping coffee in the cafe.

On a Monday morning the pool is relatively serene, and at times you can get a lane (and a steam room) to yourself. But this belies a timetable that will later on fill it with kayaks, kids' lessons, triathlon training. Lots of different people come here for lots of different experiences, and this pool is at the centre of the city in more ways than one.

It's at the centre of one incredible movement too; the YMCA spread its international wings thanks to some serious networking during the Great Exhibition of 1851, and today Williams's setup is evident in 119 countries and 58 million members and users. Here is one of the least exclusive clubs in the world; claim your free day pass and join in.

Get your free day pass to Central YMCA here.

Last Updated 29 January 2016