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London's best swimming pools

Great pools? From marble-clad baths dripping in history to modern leisure centres echoing with lifeguards' whistles, London is swimming in them

Ironmonger Row Baths (© Rob Greig)

Central London

Ironmonger Row Baths

Originally opened as a wash house in 1931, the public centre recently underwent a £16.5 million restoration project, which included giving the Turkish hammam in the basement (now operated by Spa London) a lavish facelift. Its trio of hot rooms, two saunas, two steam rooms and an ice-cold plunge pool now feel incongruously luxurious given the cost of a three-hour session here (from £8.75), and the spa’s menu of signature and Elemis beauty treatments are almost absurdly affordable. The chasm between palatial looks and leisure centre prices continues throughout. A state-of-the-art gym has been installed (we love the spinning bikes facing an anytime DVD tutorial), and the five-lane pool has been spruced up: apparently 200 man-hours were spent sanding down and varnishing its 1930s wooden gallery – and it shows. What’s been preserved in spite of the primping, however, is a sense of the venue’s place in local history.

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Old Street

Central YMCA

A perennial favourite with those working in the West End due to low membership rates, a fully equipped Pilates studio, large cardio theatre and up-to-date resistance training equipment. It’s not glamorous but that’s not the point here; instead it provides every possible type of workout and activity including climbing, trampolining and volleyball, taught to a very high standard (YMCA Fitness Industry Training is an industry leader and many of its graduates instruct here). A good 25-metre pool is divided for lane swimming; there’s also a chapel, therapies and a decent café to boot.

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Fitzrovia

Serpentine Lido

Early mornings and the winter months are the preserve of the Serpentine Swimming Club, but from May to September there’s a warm welcome for everyone in this section of the Serpentine lake – although the water is not heated. It’s not chlorinated either, a boon for swimmers who prefer to avoid the stuff, as well as to the wildlife (you may find yourself sharing a dip with the local ducks and swans). The gated family area with a (chlorinated) paddling pool, sandpit and swings means parents can relax while their children play. There's a private sunbathing area and sun loungers for hire and a kiosk within the lido grounds makes it possible to order from the popular Lido Café next door.

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Knightsbridge
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Oasis Sports Centre

A 27.5m expanse of blue, the outdoor pool at the Oasis in Covent Garden is a central London revelation to the uninitiated. Once you’ve discovered the open-air heated pool, sun terrace and adjacent indoor pool you’ll be hooked, just like everyone else who’s in on the secret. The Oasis is so popular at hot summer weekends and at peak times that getting any serious swimming done is difficult – best go with the modest aim of splashing about to cool down. The outdoor parts were refurbished in 2011, with new steps to the sunbathing terrace, where there are separate areas for adults and families, and decking beside the café which serves smoothies and ice creams. Swimming is free for Camden residents aged 55 and over between 9am and noon Monday to Friday.

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Covent Garden

Golden Lane Leisure Centre

This handsome rooftop swimming pool might be on the shortish side at 20 metres but its uplifting, light-filled surroundings more than make up for it. The pool offers fitness sessions and swimming classes. Part of the Fusion Leisure group, there's also a high-tech gym and outdoor courts for tennis and netball. Once you've done a few lengths, the club also offers a good range of martial arts classes including Karate, Tae Kwon Do and Judo. A swim will set you back £8, so if you live of work nearby membership is a much more cost-effective option.

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Old Street

North London

The Laboratory

Sitting in the shadow of Alexandra Palace, this former British Rail laboratory has been transformed into a beautiful and sophisticated gym. There is an underground swimming pool as well as an exercise room with the most up-to-date Cybex strength and cardio equipment which faces out on to pretty tree-lined views. There is also a well-spaced weights room and functional zone, four beauty and holistic treatment rooms and a poolside day spa and relaxation area with dedicated manicure and pedicure spaces. There's also a wide range of yoga classes on offer.

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Muswell Hill

Highbury Pool and Leisure Centre

Built on the site of a 1920s lido and located on the southern edge of Highbury Fields, Highbury Pool and Leisure Centre proves as popular as ever and as a result the 25 metre pool is usually packed during peak times. That said, swimming here is generally a pleasure especially if you go either early in the morning or later at night – it’s open till 10pm six nights a week . There's a small but well equipped gym as well as sauna and steam room. A good range of swimming lessons for all ages are available to book.

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Highbury

Southgate Leisure Centre

Part of the Fusion Lifestyle Group, this well-established leisure centre has been recently renovated with smart new changing rooms, a crèche and swanky new gym. The pool – a comfortable 33.3 metres with six wide lanes – retains a pleasant old-fashion feel and attracts all ages. On our last visit there was an Aqua Fit class going on which was proving extremely popular with the over 60s. There are also sessions for under 16s during school holidays.

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Southgate
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Finchley Lido Leisure Centre

The 1990s update of the original ’30s lido is housed in a complex which includes an indoor pool, cinema and bowling alley. The (unheated) lido is now far smaller, but still has a good-sized grassy terrace where you can sunbathe on hot days. Opening is weather dependent – you won't get an al fresco swim if it's less than 20C outside. Indoors, swimmers can plough up and down the main pool or enjoy the leisure pool’s wave machine.

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North Finchley

Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre

From the dazzling 25-metre main pool and 20-metre teaching pool on one side, to the impressive climbing wall on the other, this is a gem in both sporting and architectural terms. It reopened in 2006 as part of the wider Swiss Cottage regeneration project and really does offer something for everyone. The massive sports hall caters for most court and racket sports, and there's a wide range of group exercise classes in two bright, light studios. The gym is stuffed with state-of-the-art gear, including newly installed Power Plate machines, and its lower level can be programmed for specific group needs such as women-only, 50-plus and GP referrals. There’s also a Rascals adventure zone to keep the under-12s active.

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Swiss Cottage

Hampstead Heath Swimming Ponds

Originally dammed-off clay pits, the ponds are run by the City of London Corporation. It is consulting with local residents about essential works to protect against flooding, which – though unlikely – could be catastrophic if a large quantity of rain fell over an extended period. In the meantime, the three pools remain open to ladies, men and mixed groups (including accompanied children aged eight-15, at the lifeguards’ discretion) respectively. The Men’s and Ladies’ Ponds are open all year round but to use the Mixed Pond in the winter season you must join the Hampstead Heath Winter Swimming Club. Even in the summer the water is chilly.

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Hampstead
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Parliament Hill Lido

Built in 1938 and refurbished in 2005, the Grade II-listed Parliament Hill Lido measures a generous 60 metres by 28 metres. It has a stainless steel pool liner (the only one in an outdoor pool in the UK) which gives the water a metallic shimmer – not that you'll be able to tell when it's packed full of people on a sunny day. The lido is unheated, but wetsuits are permitted at the lifeguard’s discretion. There are two sessions a day (7-9am and 10am-6pm) with an additional adults-only evening session on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. There's a paddling pool for under-fives and a cafe.

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Dartmouth Park

South London

Charlton Lido

After an extensive, £2 million refurbishment, this 50-metre pool was reopened to the public in early 2013. The facility is fully heated, with a new fitness studio and café scheduled to open in 2014.

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Charlton

Peckham Pulse Leisure Centre

This pool is a bit like a Sunday dinner – although the main event is good, it’s all the trimmings that make it excellent. The 25m pool is accommodating for both exercise fanatics and water babies, water temperature is kept at a comfortable 27 degrees and there are opportunities to lane swim or paddle around in the shallow end. But it’s the extras that make Peckham a great go-to pool: as well as a sauna and steam room, the hydrotherapy pool - kept at a toasty 32 degrees Celsius - is on hand for those with creaky joints.

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Peckham

Balham Swimming Pool

More akin to a royal banqueting hall than a swimming pool, Balham Pool’s high vaulted ceilings and oodles of natural light make it a pleasant place to do a few lengths. Thoroughly modernised, and with a minimum/maximum depth of 1m/1.8m, this 25m pool is evenly split between lane and casual swims. There are a plethora of daily Aqua classes including Aqua Jog, Aqua Fit and Aqua Circuits. If the notion of physical exercise gets too exhausting, then allow your pores to breathe in the steam room and sauna.

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Balham
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Tooting Bec Lido

South London’s vast pool, with its iconic, Pantone-coloured changing huts, has been treasured by fortunate locals since it opened as a bathing lake in 1906. At just over 90m, it’s this country’s largest outdoor freshwater pool and inspires devoted swimming all through the year, although to swim in winter you must be a member of the well established South London Swimming Club, which has been based at the lido almost as long as it has existed. Facilities include a paddling pool for kids, a café, and lockers for small valuables.

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Streatham Park

Brockwell Lido

The 50-metre pool is surrounded by art deco Grade II-listed buildings which house the Lido Café (winner of a Time Out Eating and Drinking award for 'Best park cafe' in 2011) and exercise studios, offering year-round dance and pilates classes and activities for pre-school children. An eclectic range of events are organised on the site, from film nights to furniture fairs, and the Brockwell Lido Users' Group (www.brockwelllido.com) is active in ensuring the facility meets the needs of the community. On weekdays before 10am admission is free to people over 60. Opening for 2012 commences on April 20.

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Herne Hill

Camberwell Leisure Centre

Dating back to 1892, Camberwell Public Baths have recently been spruced up to meet the needs of 21st Century swimmer. Formerly comprising of two pools, one has now been covered over to create a state of the art exercise space, and the other has been beautifully restored. Surrounded by Victoriana ironwork and skylight windows that allow natural light to stream over the pool, swimming in Camberwell can feel like bathing in a different era. As well as a full sized adult pool, there’s a small children's pool.

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Camberwell
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East London

York Hall Leisure Centre

Bethnal Green's York Hall has a world-wide reputation for its boxing facilities but there's a lot more on offer. The recently refurbished centre also has a great 33.3 metre, eight lane pool and 12 metre training pool providing classes and swimming lessons for all ages. There's a fully equipped gym and studios which offer yoga and Pilates. And it's home to budget spa chain, Spa London, where you can get a massage, facial or body wrap for well under £50. A swim costs from just £3.80 off peak.

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Spa London

Until 2007 when Spa London opened in Bethnal Green, there was no such thing as an affordable day spa in in the capital. A second branch has now opened at Swiss Cottage Leisure centre with a long, good-value treatment menu. Still, for a complete spa day package you're best sticking to this East End original where facilities include steam rooms, Turkish hamam and plunge pools.Treatments range from an Escape in the City Salt Scrub (a 25-minute cleansing that should remove all trace of London grime), to the spa's signature Gym & Tonic in which your body is cleansed, body brushed and exfoliated, before being treated to an aromatherapy massage and warm marine mask. Indulgence without the price-tag.

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Streatham

London Fields Lido

A dogged 18-year campaign by the London Fields User Group saved this 50-metre lido from demolition, and it reopened in 2006. Open year-round, it’s now run by Greenwich Leisure Ltd. It’s heated and well used: during busy holiday periods it closes at lunchtime between sessions to make sure as many people as possible can enjoy it. Picnicking is off-limits but there are two cafés.

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Hackney
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Ironmonger Row Baths

Originally opened as a wash house in 1931, the public centre recently underwent a £16.5 million restoration project, which included giving the Turkish hammam in the basement (now operated by Spa London) a lavish facelift. Its trio of hot rooms, two saunas, two steam rooms and an ice-cold plunge pool now feel incongruously luxurious given the cost of a three-hour session here (from £8.75), and the spa’s menu of signature and Elemis beauty treatments are almost absurdly affordable. The chasm between palatial looks and leisure centre prices continues throughout. What’s been preserved in spite of the primping, however, is a sense of the venue’s place in local history.

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Old Street

Canary Riverside

If you need a break from making money, the 20-metre pool at this Virgin Active club will help bring your blood pressure under control. Perched alongside the Thames, in a building with glass walls, it appears to extend into the river.

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Canary Wharf

West London

Hampton Pool

This south-facing, 36-metre open-air pool, with grassy areas for sunbathing, is open and heated to a balmy 28C all year round. Built in 1922, it was saved from closure in the 1980s by a group of local residents, who continue to take part in fundraising activities and more practical tasks including gardening and other maintenance. The group has rebranded itself as the Poolside Swim & BBQ Club and holds swimming and social sessions outside of normal pool hours – anyone is welcome to join. They also run a series of summer concerts and the line up for 2012 includes Turin Breaks (Jul 6), Bellowhead (Jul 13) and Pink Floyd tribute act Brit Floyd (Jul 7). The pool also hosts swimming lessons, water polo and a triathlon club and there's a poolside gym and fitness studio.

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Hampton

Pools on the Park Richmond

Built in the 1960s and featuring both a lido and an indoor pool, the Richmond Pools are part of a complex that includes a spa and fitness centre. The heated outdoor pool opens during the summer months only.

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Richmond

Hillingdon Outdoor Pool

Formerly known as Uxbridge Lido, the Grade II-listed, 50m, open-air swimming pool reopened in 2010, restored to its 1930s glory, complete with cascades (fountains) at either end and a new, heated shallow splash pool for children. The outdoor pool is now part of a new leisure centre that includes an indoor pool of the same size. Out in the open, there’s space to chill by the pool and café for post-swimming snacks. Festivities are planned for the opening weekend of 2012 (Apr 28), including the Fustin Cup race, celebrating the 'first in' the pool.

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Uxbridge
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The Porchester Spa

The Porchester Spa, loacted in a spectacular 1929 building, is one of London’s more authentic spa experineces - benefited from a new ventilation system, re-tiled steam room and bigger sauna since its refurbishment in 2006. But but don’t expect the fluffy-white towel and ambient-music experience. This is the spa to come to if you like pools (they have a proper swimming pool, plus a plunge pool for cooling off after a stint in one of the three Turkish hot rooms). People – including lots of local men – come here for no-nonsense treatments (like the Hot Towels Treatment ) at affordable prices, including wraps, facials and massages.

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Royal Oak

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