The swimming pool in the Olympia Leisure Centre on the Boucher Road is a 25 m pool with, if memory serves me right, two shallow ends and a deeper middle section. The changing rooms are airy and pretty well looked after, with a few cubicles and the usual general area for braver ladies. The Olympia occupies a special place in my heart because I taught myself to swim there in 1996. When I started going back in 2000, the guy who was supposed to be teaching kids to swim but actually just stood around checking people out was still there. Other regulars included a middle aged woman with anorexia, and an Asian man who did about forty lengths without being able to swim in any meaningful sense of the word ‘swim’. Activity in the lanes was alarmingly speedy and competitive.
The Maysfield Leisure centre’s pool was 25m too, but it was sunken, and deeper, which always makes pools feel bigger. When I swam there, just before it closed last June, nobody was really bothering to look after it any more. The changing rooms were grimy and full of rubbish, and the lockers were either broken or locked. Later I realised this was because other swimmers, having found a locker that still locked, kept the key for future visits. Sheer genius. Sentimentally I believe myself to have been the last person to swim in the Maysfield pool. This is because on the day before the centre closed I was the last person to get out, after which the staff, who’d all been standing around talking and laughing, reeled in the lane dividers and closed the shutters on the changing rooms – not because the water level was dropping or anything.
Approaching Avoneil Leisure Centre from Avoneil Road, off the Beersbridge Road, you’ll feel as though you’re walking through a lot of people’s back gardens. The approach from the Albertbridge Road is, for different reasons, even less auspicious. Yet, despite its obscurity, Avoneil pool has some surprisingly cool features. For one thing, the lockers have laser codes, and are unlocked by swiping your yellow chunky plastic bracelet over the door: not by rusty old keys. For another: quite a lot of attractive and foreign-looking men seemed to swim there on Fridays. Finally: Anthrax once played in Avoneil Leisure Centre. This seems hard to believe (and indeed may not even be true) given that the centre also hosts quite a lot of evangelical meetings.
The Grove swimming pool, on the York Road, is, without a doubt, the strangest swimming pool I’ve ever swum in – and I include here one in Budapest where an attendant started pointing and shouting at me, and blowing a whistle until I got out and put on a plastic shower cap. Yes it has many good features: diving boards, windows which catch the afternoon sun, a 12 and a half ft deep end, impressive gala swimmers leaping around like dolphins. Nor do I hold against it those features which are merely inconvenient: the mile long trek from the changing rooms to the pool, the extreme cold, whatever it was I once cut my foot on in the shower. No: what’s weird about the Grove is that there are cruciform designs, below water level, at either end of the pool. I don’t mean crosses; and while it would be very easy, when fashioning a decorative cross in different coloured tiles, to accidentally turn it into a crucifix by adding an extra tile at the bottom, I don’t believe this effect to be an accident. For one thing, the shapes are painted at the shallow end. I think that, either because the pool was the first in Belfast to allow mixed bathing, or because the absence of any really shallow shallow-end increases chances of mortality, someone felt that a reminder of the Lord’s presence would be no bad thing. No such excuse can be imagined for the second weird thing about the Grove, which is that there are windows under water. Really, there are about ten little windows on each of the pool’s length sides. They seem to give on to dark little rooms, and you can make out concrete window ledges and dust. When I asked, the pool people said something about an engine room, but clearly some sort of observation is going on. I’m waiting to see a face – pale and eyeless like the dead man’s head in the sunken the boat in Jaws.
Observation was also originally a feature of the new Falls Swimming pool, which has windows giving on to the pool at street level. Clearly customers have complained, because they keep the shutters down now. This may seem to go against the spirit of the building’s (award-winning) design, because the changing rooms for the pool are unisex and communal. In fact, however, this ‘village changing area’ is even more discreet than in the average pool because there are lockable cubicles for everyone (giving directly on to smart pastel coloured lockers), the showers are segregated, and you’d have to go seriously out of your way for an ogle. This is good for parents with young children in mixed sex groups – but unfortunately it also leads to the pool’s downside: when I was there, there were about four hundred kids thrashing about, and a weird ramp thing in the lanes left the shallow end less than three feet deep. This keeps tiny ones for panicking about being out of their depth, but meant I was constantly worried about banging my knees. Also, I’m not sure that the Falls Pool is a member of Belfast City Council Leisure Centres – membership of which can be obtained for £12.50 a month, allowing you to swim in a number of pools. I recommend it as a way of relaxing while being, variously frozen, freaked out, embarrassed, and making small under water discoveries.