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marshall street baths
Photograph: Soo Burnell

An ode to London’s beautiful pools, ordered to close again

The impact of pubs and restaurants closing this year has been well documented, but what about swimming baths? We ask a pool-obsessed photographer what makes them special

Isabelle Aron

When Marshall Street Baths (above) opened in the middle of Soho in the 1850s, its aim was to provide facilities for Londoners who needed somewhere to wash (both themselves and their clothes). All these years (and a 13-year refurbishment) later, it’s still brimming.

Marshall Street Baths – along with every other pool in the city – was forced to close in March during lockdown, leaving its regulars high and dry, literally. They got the green light to reopen in July, but things haven’t been the same. Better Gyms, which operates 62 pools in London, says attendance in September was at about 80 percent compared to last year. Some of its pools remained closed over summer and weren’t able to operate at full capacity because of social distancing measures. Now, as a result of the second lockdown, all pools have been forced to close again.

Before lockdown was announced, concerned locals started a petition asking Westminster Council to keep leisure centres open, including Marshall Street Baths. The petition came after Westminster Council made the decision to reduce opening hours for various leisure centres in the area and completely close the pool at Marshall Street Baths to the public. The measures came into action on November 1. It’s unclear what will happen after lockdown ends.

For many people, their local leisure centres are places of sanctuaries in the city – somewhere to escape for a bit, to switch off. Someone who values the sanctity of swimming pools, possibly more than most, is Edinburgh-based photographer Soo Burnell, who took this photo in 2018. It’s part of a project which involves photographing pools all over the UK; she started in Edinburgh before making her way to London. ‘Marshall Street was top of my list’, she explains. ‘It’s such a beautiful pool – the floors are lined with marble. I wanted to capture the vaulted ceiling reflecting on the pool, it creates almost a complete circle. It’s like an optical illusion.’

Burnell loves these places for their aesthetics, but she realises that’s not the appeal for everyone. ‘There are definitely people that appreciate the buildings, but a lot of people don’t go there to look at the architecture. They’re so well used by the communities. That’s another lovely thing about being in the buildings – all the history they hold, the clubs that use them, the kids having swimming lessons.’ Burnell’s image is striking in part because of its stillness and lack of people, but she hopes to celebrate how well-loved these places are too. ‘In my pictures, they’re quiet and minimal but the reality of them is that they’re echoey and children are screaming and people congregate there. They hold all these stories of the people that have been there.’ 

This photo is in ‘Accidentally Wes Anderson’ by Wally Koval, published by Orion on Thu Oct 29, £25.

Check out this photo of ‘the godmother’ of Tooting Market who’s been there for decades.

Or reminisce about clubbing with this photo that captures the London nightlife scene we know and love.


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