News from Played in Britain

Kentish Town Sports Centre re-opens after £25m restoration

July 26 2010

One of London's finest and most cherished historic swimming pools, the former St. Pancras Baths (known since 1993 as Kentish Town Sports Centre) re-opens on Monday, July 26 following an ambitious £25.3m restoration programme, easily the largest sum ever spent on the rebuilding of a British public swimming pool complex.

Originally designed by Thomas Aldwinckle and built at a cost of over £77,000, St. Pancras Baths first opened on October 9 1901 and is Grade II Listed. Boasting four pools, the building offered what was then the greatest water area for swimming of any indoor baths complex in Britain. In addition, its 129 private washing (or 'slipper') baths were only surpassed in number by the 139 found at Islington's Hornsey Road facility.

Kentish Town Sports Centre

Photo © Camden Council

The restoration programme follows years of decline in the physical state of this dauntingly complex structure (for instance there are no less than 33 separate roof systems) that culminated in the closure of the entire building in 2007 after a series of structural mishaps had resulted in both a lump of concrete and a pane of glass falling from the building. Inclusion on English Heritage's Heritage At Risk Register further highlighted the building's increasingly dishevelled state. Nevertheless, the popularity of Kentish Town Sports Centre and its importance to the local community was clear from the impressive figure of 260,000 users recorded at the complex as recently as 2004/5.

With high profile and influential supporters such as then Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, double Olympic Gold Medallist Kelly Holmes and Director of the Victorian Society Ian Dungavell supporting Kentish Town's cause (allied to a wider campaign involving the centre's less famous users), a 3,000-signature petition had already been presented to Camden Council's ruling Labour administration in late 2005.

But it was the election the following May of a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition that proved to be the real turning point. In opposition the Liberals had pledged to restore the building and by October 2006 they made good on that promise by agreeing to not only restore Kentish Town's two large pools (henceforth to be known as the Willes and Grafton Pools), but - as demanded by campaigners - the learner pool too (originally the Ladies' Second Class Pool), St. Pancras' remaining pool (the former Ladies' First Class) had been converted to changing rooms in 1960.

Furthermore, many of the building's original features, most notably the unique timber framed hammerbeam roof of the Men's First Class pool, were to be restored after almost every Victorian-era surface had been variously retiled, repainted or covered over with false floors and suspended ceilings during 1959/60.

The project - under the direction of Gloucester-based architects Roberts Limbrick - also involved restoration of Kentish Town's striking brick and terracotta faƧade, reconnecting the original Artesian well to allow water to be drawn from underground springs as well as the installation of enhanced gym facilities. To help fund the cost of the project, areas of the building no longer needed, and the former entrance block on Prince of Wales Road, have been converted into 14 flats and 4 townhouses.

Steve BeauchampƩ

For images of the refurbishment, visit Camden Council's Flickr page. For more on the history of indoor swimming pools in Britain, see the Played in Britain book Great Lengths.

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