William Cash on why the Bath & Racquets Club is the best place in London to play squash
About two year’s ago at the Bath & Racquets Club I did something I almost never do. Before taking a steam – by far the best detox in London after a night out – I put some headphones on, clambered on to an exercise machine and started pedalling. I had barely covered enough ground to get me around Berkeley Square when I felt a friendly tap on the shoulder. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ said one of the personal trainers. ‘I don’t think you’ve had your fitness assessment.’
Absolutely right. The reason for this is that I never normally go anywhere near the gym; or the ‘pit’ as the squash-playing members of the B&R prefer to call it. Indeed, as all the club’s squash members know, the B&R is really two clubs. Nicholas Coleridge derives a rarefied pleasure from bunking off for an hour or so in the afternoon from Vogue House and escaping to his ‘lifesaver’ in Brook’s Mews. So taken is he by the club’s facilities that he has developed a fantasy of actually moving in. Yet Coleridge only gave the squash courts a passing mention (I don’t think he plays). That is a shame, as the club is, at heart, a squash club and, even without any glass back walls, the best place to play in Britain – possibly anywhere. From the first moment I stepped on to one of the B&R’s courts, buried underneath Claridge’s, I knew I had found the holy grail of courts. Until an injury, I used to play at the B&R with my old squash partner from my days at Cambridge. When we used to play on the freezing Magdalene court back in the 1980s, it was the flaking walls, not the players, who were usually sweating. Avoiding small puddles on the court was a hazard of playing. A game at the B&R is a different story.
Nothing was more fun than giving a pretty regular thrashing on court to a good friend who now lives between the B&R steam room, St Moritz and Munich. My friend may be a speed demon on the Cresta, able to drink me under every bar or club table in St Moritz and out-ski me down any piste in the Alps, but the sight of him, flat on his back, panting like a wounded bear on the bench after a match brings actual joy to my heart.
When I moved back from America to London six year’s ago I joined Queen’s Club to play squash but resigned almost the moment I first walked into the B&R. When I played at Queen’s, with its teeny, cardboard-stiff Swedish brothel-sized towels, school soap, clutter of sports bags stuffed with scrofulous-looking kit and lino-covered changing rooms, I rather felt as if I had joined the Territorial Army. By comparison, joining the B&R is like being transferred to the Household Cavalry (before the old Knightsbridge barracks were demolished).
Cleanliness and spiffing white kit – emblazoned with the club’s logo – are all part of the B&R’s appeal. That you never have to cart your own gear or trainers around with you is, of course, one of the most civilised things about being a member. The other is that the club has only around 280 members, making it, of all the Annabel’s group of clubs, perhaps the most clubbable. Unlike the officer’s mess at the old Knightsbridge barracks, new members don’t have to wait about for a year before anybody starts bothering to talk to them.Any new members will be given a few games with Steve Nicholson, the club manager and number two coach, and then will be sent a list of email addresses of suitable members to play with. Once you play against a few of them, you’ll suddenly find your name up on the squash ladder. ‘It’s a bit arbitrary,’ says Steve. ‘But we’re not the sort of club that is just about playing squash.’ Besides, a good many members – especially the hedge-fund boys, who tend to drop by around 4.30pm after the markets close – know each other anyway because they all have offices along Curzon Street or Hill Street, now known as Hedge-Fund Row. Once flopped in front of the TV, dripping with sweat from a workout or squash game, these Masters of the Universe invariably turn into the softest and friendliest labrador pups.
Some people join the B&R but just don’t fit in (excluding the member who has been paying his annual sub for two years but is yet to actually pay a visit). One member resigned after being told that he wasn’t allowed to wear his day-glo, body-hugging Lycra shorts in the gym. ‘We don’t get many muscle-men types here,’ says a member of the gym staff. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard a member say that weights aren’t heavy enough.’
If the club atmosphere is like the old Knightbridge barracks mess of the Household Cavalry, I like to think of its top five or six squash players as being the B&R Special Forces division. They are commanded by club champion Ian Wilcock. The club’s top players also include a Greek shipping heir (who presented the Andros Cup to the club), property magnates and hedge-fund titans. The club has won the prestigious Bath Cup eight out of the past ten years.
Being rather a long way down the squash ladder, I didn’t get to play with the top ranked club team members. But don’t think that just because outside the courts there is a hot-air-blowing machine to warm up your ball before a game, or because there are freshly cut slices of lemon in the water jugs, there is anything soft or cushy about the quality of the squash played at the B&R. Although not everybody can hope to reach the standard of honorary member Jahangir Khan, the former world number one who didn’t lose a match for five years (730 matches), the general club standard has improved dramatically in recent years. Much of this has to do with the brilliant coaching of Steve and the club’s top coach Hiddy Jahan, whom Steve calls the ‘grand old man’ of the club. He is a former world number two and has won 16 British Open titles in various age categories. ‘Hiddy reads the game beautifully,’ says Steve. ‘He’s also a pretty good golfer.’ In the old days, when the club opened over 15 years ago, the squash had a very gentlemanly feel to it. Now there’s more testosterone on court. When the hedge-fund boys play – especially against the Goldman boys – there’s often some competitive barging during points. The B&R has its share of characters. Nothing, for example, will affect the steely, win-or-die concentration of one of the club’s best but most fanatical players. He was playing in the club open (I was knocked out in the first round) against a fellow hedge-fund manager when his mobile phone kept ringing during the match. When he finally took the call, outside the court, his office told him that the White House had been evacuated because of a security scare. Unperturbed by the effect this could have on his billions under management, he calmly walked back on to the court and said: ‘Play on.’
While many of the B&R’s members who come in for the club’s ‘executive workout’ (lift a few weights, order a glass of mineral water or a fruit punch, read the papers, make a few phone calls in a fluffy robe, check out the latest cricket or rugby with Bob or Gustavo at the bar), the squash players are not generally Mr Evian Water or Mr Fruit Punch kind of guys. Ian Wilcock always polishes off a bottle of Chablis on a Friday night after a game. Besides, squash is one of the best cures for a hangover ever invented. And if you simply haven’t got the energy even to make it on to the court, there are always the sachets of Resolve (more effective than Alka Seltzer), which are thoughtfully available for members in the main bathroom.
At the B&R, the staff are the best. Anybody who pulls a muscle playing squash need only turn to the services of Shan Jones, who gives a first-rate sports massage. Or you can book a session with the B&R’s resident Russian superman, Alex Zimin. When you first look up at him from the massage table, you may think you are about to be pummelled by a KGB heavy. But Alex gives the best massages around (ask Bernie Ecclestone – Alex was his personal trainer for years). For any back problems, the club’s osteopath is a marvellous Ukrainian called Dr Alex. Upstairs in the barbershop, the club has acquired the services of Ian Matthews, a brilliant barber who used to be in charge of Geo F Trumper’s. He will keep you wonderfully entertained – with a Bloody Mary, expresso or glass of champagne whatever the hour – with his amusing anecdotes about his days as a former barber to Downing Street. A warning, though. Ian is fastidious about being immaculately dressed at all times. Don’t even think of sitting down in his chair if you have a crumpled suit or scuffed shoes.
Membership enquires: 0207 499 9044