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23 April 2015

I’d only gone for a swim, but I ended up being serenaded in the changing room

He was doing something I’d never seen before in Kentish Town Baths, and I’ve been going for over 40 years.

By Hunter Davies

And I am also a fan of swimming, which is why I was at Kentish Town pool, getting changed inside a cubicle. I could hear someone singing in the washroom where the sinks and the lavs and the dryers are. He was singing “Let’s go to the hop”, one of my faves, doing all the “Oh baby” beep bah bits, like Danny and the Juniors. I went into the washroom and joined in the chorus, congratulating him on his singing.

“Don’t say it… I should stick to my day job.”

He was doing something I’d never seen before in Kentish Town Baths, and I’ve been going for over 40 years. It used to be appalling, filthy and dangerous. I was always getting verrucas, so I took to wearing plastic flip-flops till the very second I got into the water. I once saw a handwritten notice that said “Don’t leave your needles here”. After a £25m refit,the old Victorian bathhouse is now gleaming and pristine, a pleasurable place to take your clothes off.

The bloke was about 60, tall, well built, with a shaved head, and he was naked. He was bending over one of the two hand-dryers, singing away. In his hands, he was holding his wet swimming costume, drying it in the hot air, the baggy sort of cossie, which gentlemen of my age wear, thinking it will disguise our tums. It was billowing out, like an aerodrome windsock.

I wondered if he had no place for drying at home, or if he had a home, then I went for my swim. It felt perishing, as always, a big effort to get in, but after half a length I always forget the cold.

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I swim three times a week, in either London or Cockermouth. It’s a drag getting changed, and I moan all the time, especially in winter or when it’s raining, shoving damp things in a locker, then having to put them on again. “Why do I do it?” I ask myself.

When I gave up playing football, I felt I had to have regular exercise apart from walking. I still miss the competitive element of football, but I race all the time against old biddies at the pool, though they don’t know it. Quite easy, really. I swim in the slow lane and there is always someone even slower than I am.

It’s not proper exercise, in that you don’t work up a sweat, but I see it as a way of keeping supple. I love being in the water. And I love afterwards, feeling refreshed and virtuous.

I go on the same days at the same time in the afternoon, yet at Kentish Town I never see the same people. I can’t understand why. In Cockermouth, even though I only go there about four months in the year, I see the same people every time. I know them all, tell myself I’m in a gang. At KT, I feel like a fly on the wall.

KT is in strict lanes and, should you stray, you get glared at, shouted at, bashed up by lane ragers. There are some fearsome 30-year-olds, men and women. At Cockermouth it’s more leisurely: too leisurely, if you get behind two blue rinses who are busy talking.

Cockermouth is modern, KT Victorian, and since the refurbishment I’ve been more aware of its magnificent architecture. On a Friday KT used to allow in some local musicians to practise, sitting up on the Victorian balcony. Listening to live music while swimming is wonderfully soporific. When I do my backstroke lengths, I look up through the glass domed roof, and on a clear day you can clearly see the odd aeroplane, heading for Heathrow. I imagine I’m looking right down the aisles. Swimming induces a meditative state. Who needs the Maharishi?

I did my 20 lengths in 20 minutes, which one of my daughters thinks is a waste of getting undressed, but then she’s a real swimmer who does wild swimming in the Thames (and has a book out about it).

In the changing room my singing friend was still on the hairdryer – with his costume on, as he’d totally dried it. He was drying his towel carefully and now singing Sam Cooke’s lines: “Took my baby to the hop…/Everybody likes to cha cha cha…”

Funny, I said, no one uses the word “hop” any more.

“Everything changes,” he said.

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