The Strand was a kind of circular swimming pool or lido – what is the difference between a swimming pool and a lido? – next to the gasometer.
I am thinking that American readers may be confused by this, since petrol is called gas in America. I am not sure what household gas would be called, in that case. Anyway, a gasometer, over here, is giant circular structure with a container inside it, which container is able to rise or fall depending on the amount of gas it happens to be accommodating. At least that’s the theory but I can’t say I’ve ever actually seen a gasometer move. They nearly always seem to be in the empty position. Maybe gasometers move so very, very slowly that you’d have to stand still on the pavement for a whole day to catch them at it, and who’s got time for that?
Gasometers are ugly, often rusty, and give off a smell of gas – or did, in the days before North Sea Gas. which is supposed to be odourless – which is noticeable for half a mile or so around. The Strand always smelt strongly of gas. That was part of its charm, as were the brightly-painted fairground swing-boats you could pay to go on; as was its unfathomable circularity. I remember children and adults queuing for admission tickets of a Saturday morning. They snaked round the outside of the building but, because of its circularity, you never quite knew how long the queue might be.
And only now it occurs to me to wonder why it was circular rather than the usual rectangular shape. Thinking back – if you mentally elevated the neighbouring gasometer over the footprint of The Strand, I wonder, would they fit exactly? Could it be that the Council originally intended to put the gasometer there, laying expensive foundations, then one Councillor had said “No, you know what? I think it would look better over there. Why not put a pool here instead!”
The Strand was great fun, if you could swim. Now-Canadian sister was utterly fearless and swam like a fish. I was timid. Whilst she was executing Overs and Overs on the metal bars that divided the deep end from the shallow end I was hopping around on one foot wearing a blue and white rubber ring, pretending to swim. Pre-pubescent girls hopping around in floatation devices were a temptation to boys of a similar age, who delighted in creeping up on them underwater and deflating them.
Boys were a menace generally, always guffawing and dive-bombing, i.e. jumping into the midst of a crowd of bathers with a great splash. Our maternal grandfather actually got his rather large nose badly broken and bent out of shape by such a swimming-pool dive-bomber: all the way through the First World War and then to be facially deformed by some trivial jumping idiot. Boys also specialised in letting off streams of… bubbles; and they wee’d in the water. Well, everyone did that; the Strand was More Wee than Water most of the time.
Mad people in particular, seemed to be drawn to The Strand. The changing cubicles were ranged in two half-circles around the edge: ladies and girls to the left, men and boys to the right. It was not unknown for an elderly, bewildered and naked adult to emerge from one side or another, to the accompaniment of cheers, and to need to be retrieved by the lifeguards. Lifeguards were angry teenagers who sat up on wobbly high chairs like in Baywatch, only with acne and without the slow-motion orange-clad running. They mostly bellowed things like “You have been warned, little boy!” and “Do that again, you pusillanimous wretch (or some similar expression) and you will be banned!
The Strand was heavily chlorinated – had to be, I suppose – and had a tendency to turn blonde hair a deep green. At the end of the summer, a lot of witchy-looking formerly blonde little girls returned to their classes. Luckily I wasn’t blonde; however, there was no escaping the chlorine. Going home on the bus, clutching a duffel-bag-full of poorly wrung out bathing costume and towel, our hair still dripping, was a stinky affair. The only consolation was the twisted glory of the barley-sugar sticks we bought ourselves in the sweetshop on the way back up the hill.