RAC Pool, Pall Mall – private swimming
“I biked down from Chalk Farm to the Royal Automobile Club at 97 Pall Mall carrying my swimming gear in my usual grey canvas rucksack…The long, green pool was a magnificent, high–ceilinged Byzantine affair, all turquoise mosaic pillars and wide terrazzo floors. The pool was edged with marble and a fine spray of tepid water played on the surface at the shallow end.”
Two things in life make me feel exceedingly awkward. Rarified privilege and motor cars. The first because I’ve always felt like an interloper about to be found out when in supposedly powerful places. The latter because of my first ever job in journalism, a particularly excruciating stint at a leading car magazine during which I spectacularly failed an intensive driving course and proved myself to have no love for anything run on a combustion engine.
It’s no surprise, then, that I feel somewhat apprehensive as I chain up my bike on Pall Mall and pass through the doors of the RAC clubhouse. It’s the very embodiment of the two things that leave me blushing red and searching for the nearest escape route.
A chirpy doorman shows me downstairs to the sports centre, the pool opening up before me as I turn the corner of the spiral staircase. Restored in 2003, it retains the Grecian style of old. Everything is marble and polished to a slippery sheen. I’ve been kindly allowed to attend today as a guest, so while I await my tour of the facilities, I take a seat with the regulars. One peruses the Daily Telegraph while another appears to be having a mid–morning snooze as swimmers plough out lengths behind us.
Tour done and towel in hand, I follow the signs to the wood–panelled changing rooms. It couldn’t be more different to the blue breeze block basics of Cirencester pool or the rough and ready concrete yard at Hampstead mixed pond. A row of sinks, with razors, shaving foam and moisturiser, line one wall. Tailored suits and brash polo shirts drape from hangers above immaculate benches. I slip into my shorts, shower off and slap my wet feet through to the pool.
At 28ºC, the water is a touch warmer than I’m used to and I feel a tad sweaty after one speedy length. Soon though, I settle into a steady rhythm and forget the somewhat tepid water. For me, London swimming means belly flops into murky water at Highgate, endless lengths at the Serpentine or struggling to get warm after just 15 minutes in Tooting Bec Lido. The RAC pool is simply nothing like that. Even the bottom of the pool looks like it gets wiped to a shine every evening.
The pillars make me feel as if I’m in an ancient bath, away from the trappings of normal society. In many ways, I suppose I am. This is a place for the rich and powerful and I am neither. Yet, there’s a welcoming air to proceedings. I accidentally knock into one lady and we joke about the lack of lanes, the struggle to stay in a straight line when the pool is quickly filling up.
I finish my kilometre, whip off my goggles and rub the raw rings that have formed under my eyes. I get out, take a blisteringly hot shower and decide to take advantage of the shaving facilities, cack–handedly dispensing with the last vestiges of my beard.
It’s a lovely, languid way to end a swim. No rushing to pull on layers to warm up, no wiping mud from between my toes, no need to negotiate the verges of country roads. Refreshed, I breeze back out into central London, ready for my next Waterlog stop. A sweep through Yorkshire and the icy waterfalls of Cowside Beck.
Image via RAC Club