AMANDA FERGUSON in Belfast
Thursday, August 31, 2023
I took a tour of Belfast's 'Better' GLL leisure centres this summer to check out their swimming pools. I love swimming. It has been a hobby of mine on and off since I was a little girl.
I have no interest in 'dipping' in the sea. I wish all the sea swimmers the best but I don't think I will be joining you. Lane lengths in a swimming pool for exercise and relaxation away from my mobile phone is my jam.
You’ll know I am also a fan of the spa. Any chance I get to book into one I tend to follow the same pattern. Lengths at the pool, then the jacuzzi, then steam room, and sauna, treatments, relaxation room, and a cocktail or some other sustenance.
If I win the lottery I will build my own pool but until that happens it is leisure centres and hotels for me. I'm a fan of the Culloden spa, as media colleagues across these islands learned when I rumbled UK PM Rishi Sunak's February visit, to speak to the DUP, initially through good contact information and then being in the right place - the vitality pool - at the right time.
It can't always be spa time, though I would find that lifestyle most agreeable so if anyone wants to appoint a Relaxation Editor, I'm your woman.
I find lane swimming is a great way to separate me from the world for an hour or so. You can't be contacted when you're gliding through the water.
Anyway, I had been doing the pay as you go system at our local Belfast pools but signed up for the Better 'swim only' membership last year. It's £23.90 per month which I think is great value.
For a variety of reasons, I am not getting into now, I have messed about a bit and didn't make full use of my membership until this summer.
I started to take swimming seriously around the end of May, and have to say I'm really loving it again.
Now I know leisure centres have been in the media in the past regarding their future, and employees terms and conditions, and complaints about various problems, so wherever they are ongoing issues my support is with the communities and workers.
This post is about my experience of the pools in the Belfast city council area over the summer. Information about the spas, gyms, classes and other facilities are on the website. I will link to all so you can read about everything on offer.
And you can read more about the council leisure services transformation here: https://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/transformingleisure
I love swimming.
I am from north Belfast and I am an atheist these days but I used to be a practising Catholic. Having a Catholic mother who couldn't swim and a Protestant dad who could, meant, as a kid of the 80s and 90s, I tended to use the pools in predominantly 'Protestant, unionist, loyalist' type areas.
I knew when not to wear my St Thérèse of Lisieux 'jaffacake' uniform, how to say the letter H if quizzed, and I remember my da advising that if anyone asked me what my religion was to tell them I was Jewish! A very Belfast response to a particular issue of the time...
So, fast forward to June/July/August 2023 and first up is the Grove.
I will start off by saying all the staff are sound. In fact the staff in every centre I visited were dead on. I find lifeguards fall into two categories - quiet or craic. They have a serious job to do, and do it well.
I used the 'old Grove' loads when I was a kid. I would usually walk there, and swim in the large and small pool for hours. I loved it so much. Diving for my locker keys, swimming underwater, splashing, and having a laugh. It was deeper and wider than the current pool.
Also Magherafelt has a 50m pool. Bangor city *don't laugh* in Co Down has one. See Aurora website: https://www.bangoraurora.com I know Bangor isn't the other side of the world but why Belfast doesn't have a 50m pool is beyond me.
The 'new Grove' on the York Road, just metres from the waste site of the old place, has a good 25m pool and a smaller kids pool, plus small steam room. Parts of the interior could do with a lick of paint in places, there are green marks on sections of the pool floor, and the occasional sewer smell from blocked drains, but it's a decent facility, and handy to Lidl and Asda too.
It's a pity the glass fronted building which houses a pharmacy, cafe, library and GP surgeries, had to be covered in cages because of anti social behaviour.
North Belfast is a patchwork constituency. It isn't single identity. Looking at flags fluttering from the lampposts as you swim inside doesn't bother me but the territory marking outside a leisure centre could make others feel it's not for them.
Templemore is the last Victorian public baths in Ireland. The shiny and new all singing all dancing spotless pools on Templemore Avenue in the east of the city make you want to return. They are fab. There is a four lane set up in the Heritage Pool. It's divided for Fast, Medium and Slow swimmers. Observing who choses which lane provides for lots of entertainment. A sports writer colleague explained it was about 'male pride'...
The main pool with moveable floor is six lanes wide with room to accommodate families, classes and swimming lessons. There is also a small sauna, steam room, and four heated loungers. And a lovely cafe too.
I visited the Olympia a handful of times. It is on Windsor Way just off the soulless car dealership stretch off the Boucher Road. A statue of flawed sporting icon George Best is positioned just outside the entrance. The centre has a 25m pool and a small pool for kids.
It felt like quite a masculine space, but has the added bonus of having a separate full spa with treatments menu which I have availed of. For £16.20 you have access to the full range of spa facilities, and if you fancy treatments you can book in for those too. You can check it all out here: https://www.spaexperience.org.uk/locations/belfast
My late paternal grandmother lived in the Silverstream area well into her 90s so I was a frequent visitor to the Ballysillan area. I learned to swim at this pool. My swimming teacher was the delightfully named Valerie Pike.
I loved diving for swimming bricks and locker keys, and recall once swimming in my pyjamas while earning swimming badges.
The centre opened in 1982, and when I returned to check it out it was like stepping back in time. The site is run down, quite dark and a bit gloomy. The entrance signage is covered in barbed wire! The pool and changing facilities were dated but fine. Shabby looking in parts but you can get the job done. Investment could bring it back to life.
It was my first time in the Andytown pool. It's like someone said 'we'll have one of everything' and there it all is. I am sure kids love it!
I did lengths in the main pool in the massive complex but enviously eyed up the Aqua Park which has three water slides including a drop slide, master blaster and body slide. I will have to return with the small people in my life at a later date.
And I had to do radio from the foyer one morning so I can add that to the list of random places I have broadcast from.
It was my first time in the Falls Road pool. Like Olympia it felt a bit like a place for men. The interior of the pool area looks a bit shabby but it is grand for a swim, and it's easy to get the Glider to the centre and glide back into town.
Different people go to pools at different times of day but I did notice a lack of women. The only other woman I saw in the pool area the whole time I was there was a staffer cleaning the floor.
Again you can get the job done but it didn't make me want to go back.
I have been trying as much as I can to use public transport to get to and from the leisure centres. I got a bus into the city centre and went around to get the bus to Whiterock from Queen Street but they were hourly so I ended up getting a taxi. Arguably it's for the local catchment area but still.
I have a wee bit of a soft spot for the Whiterock pool. I think it was having a laugh with the women in the ladies changing who made the experience. My best friend used to work there years ago as a spin instructor but it was my first time. The pool was grand. It seemed the cleanest of the older pools.The centre reminded me in some ways of Ballysillian. The exterior is uninviting and the interior has seen better days, but it was generally fine.
Twinbrook is miles away lol. I am not surprised to learn it was previously part of Lisburn!
It was my first time in the Brook pool. The pool is quite small, clean and well kept. The disco balls and lights on the ceiling are used for sensory swims.
I was a bit gutted they understandably weren't on when I was there as I had booked for a 'swim for fitness' session so up and down the lanes in the usual way it was.
I was an occasional visitor to the Shankill leisure centre as a kid. The wave machine was class. I haven't been into the centre for more than 30 years.
The shape of the pool means it is not set up for lane swimming. It was mainly families there when I visited. One kid’s mum turned her back for a second and he started to flounder but luckily the lifeguard was straight on it and all was well.
The centre is another one that looks like it needs TLC. At one point a plaster floated past me, which kind of turned me, so I left after half an hour.
It was my first time there. When I arrived into the pool area the number of swimmers made it look like busy traffic.
The facilities were good, the swimmers were friendly, the pool was clean and enjoyable to use.
So, that's that. Some info for you after I decided to amuse myself this summer.
The staff at all the centres were great. No complaints at all. I have some issues with the Better booking system, the app and the timetable but it's not the 90s any more so I appreciate that lots of types of swimmers needs to be accommodated, and you can't just turn up whenever you want.
I have invites from friends to try other pools so I’ll keep going on my tour to keep my hobby fresh and see what the north/NI and elsewhere has to offer.
Some top tips...
Swimming is for everyone. It attracts people of all ages, shapes and sizes. Get good fitting gear and get in there. You might love it. And if you can't swim there are loads of opportunities to learn.
If you wear your bikini/swimming costume/trunks etc to the pool under your clothes don't forget to pack underwear for when you are getting changed after your swim.
You don’t have to put your head under the water if you don’t want. I like to keep my ears dry. A mate's other half recommended Surf Ears. You can find them here: https://surfears.com
Get a swimming cap or pile your hair up on top of your head with a loose scrunchie to avoid breakage. Your hairdresser will advise you about chlorine and its impact on your do.
Use loads of moisturiser on your body and conditioner on your locks after your swim.
Get pool socks or flip-flops. Nobody needs a verucca in their lives. I don't like standing on the changing room floors so I bring a bath mat or a swimming mat to stand on after showering.
Remember £1 for your locker.
Find your thing. Whether it's walking, swimming, gym, park run, weights, yoga, whatever.
I am increasingly feeling great. Energy creates energy, and all that, so just find the thing you least detest, or if you are lucky that lights you up.
G'luck. Amanda x
P.S - Pics below are of Hastings Hotels Culloden spa, and the Anantara at the Marker, which I can recommend if you are in Dublin.
Update - I am going to extend my tour to beyond Belfast, and add posts to this👇🏻X thread!
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