I just bought a one year Better Health & Fitness UK membership. Better is run by Greenwich Leisure Limited, a company who have taken over management of most of the public gyms and swimming pools in Greater London, and some of the ones in the rest of the UK. All the photos in this article are of their facilities in London.
Not only do I have access to all the Better centres, but my membership also entitles me to use any sports facility that’s part of the UK Fitness Network, a charity that aims to bring together all the not-for-profit sports facilities in the country. That means I can also use some pools and gyms in London that are run by other companies such as Nexus and Aquaterra, plus a few leisure centres in the Home Counties, Oxfordshire, Glocestershire and other places. Below is a map from their website showing the member centres in London:
This is incredible news for me because it means that I can get access to hot showers, toilets, shelter and drinking water in hundreds of locations around London seven days a week. Basically everything I need.
It’s everything I need because I’ve discovered that sleeping outdoors is really easy, and there are plenty of places in London to get food and drink, so the annoyance was finding a place to have a hot shower. I was using gyms and pools on a pay-as-you-go basis, but on days when I didn’t want to do more exercise I didn’t feel like paying five pounds just to have a shower.
I’m glad I lived outdoors for a while without a gym membership because it gave me the opportunity to seek out places to shower for free. I discovered a few, and since you’ve taken the time to delve deeper into my blog I’ll share them with you. Don’t tell the uvvers!
The best place is the brand new Little Venice Sports Centre near Paddington Station. At the entrance is a miniature public library where you can use the computers and internet free of charge without even needing to register, and charge your phone. The toilets for the library happen to be the changing rooms for the gym, and therefore have lovely hot showers in private cubicles. I walk in and out fully dressed, showering quickly and drying my hair so they think I’m just using the toilet. Of course I don’t give them any clue that I’m a rough sleeper because I’m wearing bright cycle-wear and carrying only one Orteib pannier bag, a London cycle-commuter’s favourite. I don’t feel much guilt about using these Westminster facilities because I paid council tax to that authority for four years. However, the sports centre has come under the management of Greenwich Leisure so with my new membership I’m now entilted to use it.
In Hyde Park there’s a cold shower next to the swimming area – look up Hyde Park Lido. When the lido’s officially open in the warmer months the area is closed off because it costs about a fiver to swim in the lake. But after it closes in the early evening the area becomes a public footpath that’s not used very much. The options are to either try to shower with your shorts on, or shower naked late at night by climbing in when the park’s closed, or just shower earlier in the evening and not care about the one or two people who might see you. After all it’s a traditional swimming area where people have been undressing for centuries. You’re not allowed to use any soap – I think the shower must drain into the lake and soap harms the aquatic life. I’ve only used it a couple of times outside opening hours last year, I also went for a nice swim in the lake. The last time I went it was midnight, I felt refreshed but chilly so after I dried up I brewed a giant mug of tea on my wood stove.
Outside London there are often free cold showers on the beach in popular sea-side resorts. I’ve used these in Eastbourne when I slept rough there for a few days. If you went down to sunny Spain to escape the Winter there are free showers on the beach there too. The Spaniards think the beaches are freezing there any time after October, but from experience I can assure you they’re warmer than our beaches ever get mid-summer!
Perhaps the most versatile free shower is just to carry a big water container with you. At a huge Tesco store on the canal at Yewsley, West London, they have hot water on tap in their toilets, so I filled two big bottles with it and quickly cycled to a nearby park before they cooled down. It was getting dark, I found a nice grassy spot secluded by bushes, poured one bottle over my head, lathered up, then poured the other one over to rinse. That was early last year when I was carrying my tent, which I pitched a few meters away (the very same place photographed on my lifestyle page).
More convenient than big bottles is a water bag. For a while I carried a four litre Ortlieb water bag which never leaked. It’s convenient because when it’s empty its very small and I discovered that four litres was just enough for me to shower and wash my socks. The water bag has a strap that can be clipped over a branch above your head. Last time I used it I tuned a piano in a posh house in Barnes, filled it up with hot water from their tap and quickly cycled through the common to a grassy area surrounded by trees. I had to be very efficient, showering under a mere trickle of water and turning the tap off frequently. If it’s windy I have to be quick because the water will dry before I can lather up. It was quite exhilarating to shower in warm water surrounded by the woodland.
But is it necessary to shower oneself in water? For millenia humans have bathed their whole bodies from a bucket or bowl – a sponge bath. Many homeless people use a similar technique wherever they can find privacy for a few minutes – in London that’s most often a disabled toilet.
And let’s not forget the most simple and traditional bath there ever was – jumping a river or lake. Unfortunately the river in Central London is not clean enough, but I have used this method with great success in Surrey, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Cumbria, from March to November. There are many people who think nothing of jumping in mid-Winter – in fact many people break the ice to go swimming every day just because they believe it’s a healthy exercise. The important thing to note is that a five minute cold dip is not bad for you – what is dangerous is staying in the water for too long, or not getting dry and warm again immediately after you get out. Fortunately having a bath needn’t take long. I had one in the River Thames near Lechlade in March this year – I got in the water, felt the cold shock, got out, lathered up with biodegradable soap, then got in and out again and quickly dried up – I felt fresh and clean for the rest of the day, and felt the exhilarating natural kick of endorphins that comes with a cold bath. It’s advisable to do this before the evening to give your body a couple of hours to warm itself up before bedtime. If you can arrange a hot drink afterwards then even better.
There are other places where it’s not free to shower but much better than paying a £5 gym entry fee every day. One place I discovered is the Queen Mother Sports Centre near Victoria Station where you can say you only want a shower and they charge you £1.60. I wonder how many other sports centres offer a similar service?
Joining a sports club is another fun way of going about it – football, climbing, fencing, martial arts – whatever you’re into, so long as they have showers in the changing rooms. I pay £160 per year for my membership to the Westminster Boating Base because I want to learn more about sailing. A major benefit is that I can have a hot shower there after having fallen in the dirty river a few times. They know me well and have invited me to shower there any day they’re open, even if I’m not sailing.
This is all very useful stuff to know, but living in the city there’s a much more convenient, much more civilised way to stay fresh and clean – joining a gym. If you sleep rough and stay mostly in one area it’s the most obvious thing to do. I was moving around too much to be committed to one gym, but the UK Fitness Network has been the answer to my prayers because they have loads of gyms and pools in all the areas that I frequent.
I could have joined the Fit4Less gym network for just £15/month but they don’t have enough branches in the areas I travel and they don’t have any swimming pools. I had also considered a more luxury chain like David Lloyds, Chelsea Harbour or Gym Box. Since I’m not paying any rent I can afford it, and it would be nice to try for a while. But again they don’t have enough branches and their swimming pools are a bit on the small side.
Greenwich Leisure, trading as ‘Better’ do have plenty of branches around London so I thought of getting their £30/month ‘swim only’ membership because I can do all my other exercise outdoors, it’s only the swimming pools and showers that I need. This membership doesn’t include membership to the UK Fitness Network. But for £52/month (or with an annual discount, £520/year) I can use their gyms, saunas, squash and badminton courts as well as their pools, and get access to the whole UK Fitness Network.
I was jogging around Clapham Common thinking about the options when it stuck me that my mentality might be wrong – I was trying to decide on the cheapest possible membership that would get me the most benefit for the least money. I realised this mentality has carried over from the days when I used to rent a flat – I felt like the utilities companies, and especially my landlord were trying to squeeze every last penny out of me by putting prices up every year, so I was very cautious and critical about where my money went. Isn’t it sad that I ended up thinking this way? Shouldn’t humans live to serve each other, not take advantage of each other?
I thought again about the huge cost of the infrastructure provided by the local authorities who have built and maintained all these gyms and swimming pools. I thought about how much it costs to get anything done these days – how many experts they’d have to employ to satisfy all the health and safety requirements and get the maintenance carried out professionally. I wondered how much gas they have to burn to heat up to a million litres of water in the average swimming pool to a balmy 28 degrees Celsius so that I can enjoy a leisurely swim without feeling chilly.
I also thought about the UK Fitness Network – what a brilliant idea! Just imagine, if it keeps expanding to every not-for-profit leisure centre in the country… I could cycle around Britain and have a hot shower in every town along the way! I decided I wanted to support this project. I decided that regardless whether or not I really need it while I’m living in Central London, I wanted to pay more money and become part of this exciting national movement.
I had selfish motivation too – I reasoned that on days when I didn’t need exercise, just a shower, having access to an entire leisure centre might tempt me to do an extra workout, just because I can. For example I might have been swimming the day before and have tired muscles from lifting weights two days previously, but still feel like doing a gentle twenty minutes on a rowing machine or cross trainer just to shake it all off. I might think it’s fun to attempt a climbing wall, or just hang on some monkey bars and have a good stretching session. These are all things that I’d never have paid a gym entry fee to do, but since I have an annual membership I feel I might as well make the most of it.
The end result is that for £520/year I have access to hot showers, toilets, shelter and drinking water almost every day of the year, and everytime I go there I get some exercise as well. I had always wished I exercised more regularly and consistently but I was often too lazy to leave my rented flat, even though I had already paid a gym membership. Now I have to go to the sports centre to get a shower so this gets me over the initial inertia and it doesn’t take much more effort to walk into the weights room and lift something.
Another thing I had often dreamed of when I was younger was to have my own custom-made gym in my own house, with my own favourite music on repeat. Now I’m spoilt for choice – if I don’t like one gym I have a hundred others to choose from. I think it’s more healthy to use several gyms because each one has different machines for training the same muscles, so I can vary the motion of each muscle group. There are also fitness instructors and regular gym users on hand to give me advice. Having a large private gym all to myself would not be efficient use of money or natural resources – in this modern world plagued by overconsumption it’s better for the environment if we share facilities like gyms and pools. As an added benefit we can all afford to have much bigger and better facilities.
One of my clients is very wealthy and lives on a big country estate with her own private lake and indoor swimming pool. She recently drained the pool dry because she said she doesn’t use it enough to justify the £10,000/year it costs to keep it full of warm, clean water. Yes, that’s exactly what she told me, it costs her £100,000/year to run her house and grounds, and it used to cost an additional £10,000 to keep the swimming pool running. The last thing I want is a big house like that! I can’t imagine how much carbon emmisions 10k translates to, just so that one or two people can have a warm swim every now and then. In contrast the pool at the council leisure centre is shared by hundreds of people every day. It’s also four times the size.
When I used to rent a flat and go to the gym I never used to shower there – I always jogged home to shower and change with more time and privacy, and I think most young people nowadays do the same. What I’m doing now is more akin to old times when the working class didn’t have hot running water in their homes, and the public swimming baths would be a place to freshen up, the bath being equally as important as the exercise.
Since Greenwich Leisure manage most of the public, local authority-owned leisure facilities in Central London, I get access to some interesting historic buildings and swimming baths in the area, like the Kentish Town Sports Centre:
The pools are much bigger than the privately owned gyms – the UK Fitness Network even includes two fifty-metre, Olympic size indoor pools at the Gurnell Leisure Centre in Ealing and the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, and also a couple of fifty-metre heated outdoor pools like the London Fields Lido in Hackney:
It’s great not to have to turn around every thirty seconds. Since I’m always travelling it’s great fun to explore all these historic leisure facilities and the areas surrounding them. In addition, doing more exercise is saving me a fortune! Because luxuries like hot showers make my lifestyle more appealing, and encourage me to continue sleeping ‘rough’.
It’s important to make my lifestyle as easy as possible because otherwise I might give up when it gets too cold and just go back to renting a flat and the treadmill of working long hours to pay for it all. It’s not the ultimate escape from city life – that would be living in the countryside, bathing in rivers, catching rabbits and ducks and cooking them on a wood fire. That could be carbon neutral, whereas the use of city sports centres uses gas and electricity to heat the buildings, pools and shower water. But at least the facilities are shared by hundreds of people, so each person leaves only a small carbon footprint, and I still have a measure of control – if I want to I can shower faster and not use the hand dryer, for example.
This brings me on to the interesting difference between city life and country life, for people who live my kind of simple lifestyle. You see, in the city it’s not possible for everyone to live off the land and bathe in the rivers. There are seven million people in London and the river has been contaminated by their sewage and rubbish. Even further out of town the agriculture is so intense that pesticides and fertilisers get washed into the rivers every time it rains heavily. There aren’t enough wild animals or trees in the urban landscape for everyone to hunt their own prey and cook it on a wood fire.
In contrast if one moves to a remote part of Patagonia or British Colombia there are so few people that the rivers are sparkling clean, inviting one to have a nice cool bath, the woods are full of game and the waters teeming with healthy fish that are very tasty when seasoned and grilled over a smokey wood fire. There’s plenty of land to grow your own potatoes and vegetables and you can move up and down the country with the seasons.
I want to bring out this contrast because when I used to rent a flat and dream of living outdoors, for some reason I imagined a wild, back-to-nature lifestyle, when I was actually planning to stay right here in the Thames Valley for a few years because that’s where all my work is. I wanted to find a way to live in harmony with our planet but living off the land is not practical in an urban setting. As a result everything seemed to cost money – the food, the showers, even the toilets. I wanted to be self-sufficient but I wanted to stay in London.
What I realised is that it may work out just as favourably both in the city and in the countryside. In the city everything costs money, but why am I in the city in the first place? Because I can make money here. Not enough money to pay rent and get on the property ladder, but more than enough to pay for a gym membership and buy food and drink. In fact now that I sleep outdoors, the ratio of my earnings to expenditures makes me feel quite rich. What I’m saying is that city life is only hard when you spend too much money – if you sleep outdoors like me, even a minimum-wage job will make you feel rich, and with a gym membership and hot showers life is made easy.
In contrast, in the countryside I can’t earn much money at all, but then life doesn’t cost much. I don’t need a gym membership – I can bathe for free in the rivers, and I can cook rabbits and ducks. Because I’m not working I have all the time in the world to hunt game, catch fish and make fires. With enough time and practise, I could even grow my own produce. Of course this is not something I would just get up and do on a whim because I have no experience – it would take a few years to wean myself off my dependance on supermarkets and other city conveniences. But there are people who do it – according to my friends down in Cornwall there are some ex-servicemen in the area who are living wild – hunting game, cooking it and exchanging some of it with locals for potatoes and vegetables.
So either way, country or city, I can’t loose. The city is more expensive but I can earn money easily, whereas in the countryside I can’t earn much but life is almost free. A similar principle applies to people who sleep inside buildings – house prices are much cheaper in rural areas. If I wasn’t enjoying my work in London I know where I’d be heading. But I am enjoying my work and I think the city life is easier for me at the moment. I’d like to experience both, but now that I’ve discovered that sleeping outdoors in London is so easy I want to enjoy this very favourable earning-to-spending ratio for a while longer. In a few years time I’d like to travel around Britain, maybe the whole world and I’ll have plenty of opportunity to experiment with living off the land. For the time being, here in London I can still try to make my life as efficient as possible, not just financially but also in terms of resource consumption and carbon emmissions.
Some people want a complete escape from society, complete independence and self-sufficiency – a hermit-like existence, at one with Mother Earth. I enjoy spending time alone, and I’d like to try a hermit-like existence one day, for a while, but I also really enjoy meeting people and being part of society. I enjoy cultural interaction and wonder if there’s any way I might contribute to society one day. Humans have become the dominant species on this planet not by being hermits but by developing incredible abilities to communicate and work together. A hermit tries to produce everything he needs for himself. In contrast specialisation has enabled expert farmers to grow wheat with much greater efficiency, which in turn enables fishermen to spend weeks out in the North Atlantic to bring back boatloads of healthy cod, while electrical engineers back in England can eat it all and dedicate all their time to making the Internet work so that I can write to you on this blog. What’s more, when lots of people live together they can pool their resources and use them much more efficiently, the classic example in this article being the shared use of a heated swimming pool.
However the modern argument is that this has all gone too far – while we stress ourselves out in the office of an insurance company in the City of London, some one else is roasting in the hot Indonesian sun while they chop down the rainforest to produce vegetable oil that’ll be mass-processed and shipped right around the world so that we can overdose on fatty foods. Witnessing the environmental disaster unfold, there are many professionals in the UK, like electrical engineers, who have taken matters back into their own hands, in their spare time growing some of their own produce in an allotment, building solar heating systems on their roofs and keeping chickens in the garden for fresh eggs every morning.
The long term goal of my lifestyle experiment is to find my own way to balance modern life with respect for our planet, in a lifestyle that’s both physically and mentally edifying and that still enables me to make my own contribution to the future of our race. I’m only consuming 10% of the energy and resources that I used to, and I want to keep the pressure on until I’m only consuming 1%, whilst still getting on with every project I feel is important.
I think that as long as I live in the capital city I’ll use the gym to have a shower – in London there are just so many people crammed into such a small area that it’s the only sensible choice. But if I ever move out to the wilderness I’ll jump in a lake instead.
I feel that as long as I stay in this part of the UK, gym membership has solved the last problem in my lifestyle experiment; it has put the last piece in the puzzle. I now feel tremendous confidence as I glide around London on my bike, enjoying the fresh breeze as I try to comprehend the fact that this whole city has become my comfortable home. Every park, every riverside bench is my lounge, every library and cafe is my reading room, every train station is my conservatory, every hill is my viewpoint and now every leisure centre is my spacious gym and bathroom.