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I journeyed 5600 miles to visit a toilet.
A sign that goes unheeded.
Most travelers to Tenby on the southwestern edge of Wales come for the bay and beach, the collection of eccentric shops alongside medieval walls and the rows of candy-colored bed-and-breakfasts. Nearby are Pembroke and Carew Castles, Britain’s only national coastal park and the monastic Caldey Island with its heavenly chocolates.
Despite the chill and rain of April, I experienced the tourist bureau charms. I also perused Polaroid Joycams and VHS cassette rewinders at Squibb’s camera shop (open 10:30 AM to 1:00 PM weekdays) where no device is newer than the Thatcher administration, and I (barely) partook in a lopsided conversation with 64-year-old endurance-adventurer Rosie Swale-Pope who, among numerous quests, spent nearly five years running around the world (Question from a local: “Where you off to, Rosie?” Answer: “I’m off my head.”).
But such sights and sounds were not what drew me to Tenby. I came to visit a loo just outside a working dungeon. Just as there are dive bars and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, amongst gym rats a certain strata of workout space is fondly known as a dungeon.
These are the sweat emporiums that the StairMasters, elliptical trainers, and Ab Coasters never gentrified. A dungeon is devoid of everything but a few tons of iron and the most primitive machines, and if the benches are tattered and mirrors cracked and metal scarred it merely insures, no matter how hard you train, you can’t hurt a thing. Forty years ago there were dungeons and there were health spas, but in the wake of the fitness revolution they merged. Today, you can deadlift in a Bally’s just as you can jazzercize in a Gold’s Gym, and dungeons have retreated into history.
'Dungeon' inhabitant, IFBB Pro Zack Khan.
But time stands still in Tenby.
Located a stone’s throw from 13th century castle walls, this dungeon has no sign nor official name. Underground, it’s hidden in the basement of what began more than a century ago as the village schoolhouse and what now houses a library and community center. Bodybuilder Neil Hill started renting the space in 1992. It’s never had more than fifty members, a dozen of whom have keys. Dues go towards buying or building more equipment, and through the years one small room multiplied to four.
The “juice bar” (i.e. water faucet) is at the end of a rusty pipe trailing from the rotten ceiling with a bucket beneath it. “You never know what might come out of there,” Hill states. The heaviest weight plates are old train wheels. Mirrors (most cracked, of course) fog over on the many cold days from the heat of human exertion. Even in April, my breath makes clouds.
The juice bar.
Like "dungeon," "hardcore" is a term of endearment for a place like this, but then there is no other place like this. This is the most hardcore gym in the world in part because, since hanging up his posing trunks in 2003, Hill has become one of bodybuilding’s premiere trainer/nutritionists. Among those who regularly journey here to undergo his torture sessions are the past three winners of the annual British Bodybuilding Championships, all now promising professionals.But one other thing truly distinguishes this gym from the few others still rated hardcore.
“Why don’t you install a real toilet?” I ask.
“Because I wouldn’t want to have to clean it,” Hill answers with a grin.
The smell–an olfactory warning–assaults you as you descend the mossy, stone steps. The “restroom” is located directly across from the front door, three feet away, and it occupies the space below the steps. It is the space, with nothing to distinguish it but the stench. There, in the dark, leaves collect, trash is scattered, vermin roam, and dungeon-dwellers relieve themselves. About once daily at the edge of the stone walk before the blackness, someone–often Hill–loses his last protein shake there, up and out, the result of an especially hardcore workout.
The infamous toilet.
Some wayfarers to faraway places experience a meal of previously unknown pleasures or they encounter a vista that overwhelms them with shivers of wonder or they feel an instant romance with a boulevard or a building or a way of life. And they never forget.
What occurred during the fifteen seconds I spent alone standing with my back to the door of a working dungeon in Wales, in the cold in the rain in the dark, was as natural and as memorable as tasting or seeing or falling in love. I prefer porcelain, but it’s good to know dungeons endure.