Tottenham Baths, London [2005]

After reading a handful of other accounts, I decided to pay a visit to Tottenham Baths - an astonishing relic lying vacant on a busy North London street. As recently as the early 90s, the building was still being used for boxing matches and dances, but the cost of upkeep, combined with the opening of a nearby leisure centre, finally sounded its death knell in 1991. There has been talk of an arts centre being built in its place - but as at Warley and Cliveden, these plans have been stymied by the local council, and it has lain derelict for almost fourteen years.

The building’s main features are its two pools – with the larger, more impressive of the two often boarded over and used as a dancehall or theatre. Elsewhere, there are a series of smaller rooms – showers, cafeteria, and a cluster of offices at the building’s front - but certainly nothing to match the decaying grandeur of the main hall.

The Baths are remarkably free of graffiti, and as at Rauceby, deterioration is due largely to neglect and the steady encroachment of nature. The few traces of other explorers came in the form of film cartridges and battery packs; but most of the activity I observed was rather benign: chairs thrown in baths, filing cabinets upturned, relics repositioned in the hope of a better photograph. Smashed skylights have hastened the decline somewhat, but most other signs of human intervention are minimal.

Much of the site has been taken over by various flora: moss clinging to every surface, entire walls now devoured by mould (its texture and gradations like a diseased bruise). In the baths themselves, in the acrid shallow pools at each end, trees and bushes have started to emerge; smaller bryophytes providing a verdant carpet of sludge at their base. In other sections of the site, tiles have even been forced off the wall by the climbing plants beneath (the pace of destruction almost glacial – a tile or two removed each month, a wall cleared within a decade).

As befits an emerging ecosystem, animals, too, are in abundance: each upturned panel sending beetles, millipedes and spiders and scurrying for cover - while the baths now attract a wide variety of birdlife; at times resembling a vast aviary.

 

Its upper reaches have been colonised by pigeons, with their droppings coating almost every inch of the building’s floors (in places so thick it could almost be mistaken for topsoil). They were clearly unused to visitors and would splutter upwards in an outraged whirl of dust and feathers whenever I turned a corner. The nimbler birds, at least, appeared more sanguine. On a handrail by the fire escape, I encountered a fearless robin, happy for me to pass within a few feet, while the crows and sparrows picking through the remnants of the stage seemed similarly untroubled by my presence.

A decade’s worth of neglect has at least rendered much of the excess bearable. Strident, ill-chosen colours have slowly faded (brash vermillion now a soft Indian Red); the once-garish tiles now stripped of their lustre. Indeed, the Baths now seem to embody the kind of squalid, faded elegance that typifies many seaside resorts out-of-season. 

A large part of what the Baths so interesting was that very little seems to have been removed from the site – instead it has merely been relocated. Hundreds of floorboards are stacked at the rear of the hall, while an entire auditorium’s worth of chairs now reside in a room behind the stage. In the pools, too, I found remnants of the laundry, guide ropes for swimmers, microscopic fragments of rubber flooring – traces of almost anything if I looked closely enough. The most baffling aspect of the Baths was certainly the migration of furniture (how a washing machine could ever find itself beneath the main stage, for instance). As in other abandoned places, years’ worth of random events have resulted in bizarre configurations, the reasons for which are now impossible to unravel.

The balcony areas were perilously unsafe in places, the floor often giving way under my feet. The ceiling seemed even less secure: a large fragment collapsing towards the end of my visit - a low moan and then silent flight before shattering on the supports below.

With the roof in the smaller pool removed, and the distant rumble of the nearby street, I was at least spared the unease of my asylum visits; the building’s more benign history another factor. There was no sense of suffering, no identification – the Baths merely summoned up memories of winter trips to Southend, or the more desolate fringes of the South-East. And yet people once worked here, learned to swim here, injured themselves here, fell in love or were harassed here. It was once a key element of community life - yet so extreme is the dilapidation, the leap needed to connect with the past seemed too great. It was only when I discovered a series of archival photos that I at last felt any kind of meaningful connection to the past. 

In the photo of the smaller pool, the patterns on the tiles are immediately recognisable, as are the bright blue rafters, though the pool has only a handful of swimmers, a disinterested lifeguard slumped on a chair by the wall. The photos of the ballroom seem even more loaded with pathos - just two couples on the dance floor and predominantly empty tables in the wings. Looking at the photos of the ballroom, the sense of smallness is particularly pronounced, and at odds with the grandeur I sensed when exploring. With the floor boarded up, the stage appeared to have barely enough room for a piano, while the balcony seemed poised almost at head height. 

In use, it was enjoyed by thousands but its abandonment has been witnessed by almost no one. And yet, as wrongheaded or myopic as it may sound, I found myself preferring the hall in its current state. As with many other ruins, the Baths somehow summon that rare combination of both humility and possibility. For all the waste and danger, it's clear that dereliction represents a generative, expansive force (a kind of final exhalation and brief growth of presence). The Baths are now something else entirely, yet still something worthy of attention. 

I spent rather longer than intended in the building due to the sudden appearance of workmen – a steel fence erected around my entrance point whilst still inside. In the end I just sat there silently, legs hanging over the deep-end as I waited for dusk and the chance to escape unnoticed.