Len Sell's Gym Walthamstow

As I said in my last article, Len Sell (my friend, professional bodybuilder & Mr Universe) had his first small gym in Harlow, Essex, which is where I first started to train with him. As the gym was getting busy Len decided to relocate and open a really great gym in London.

Finding properties the right size to take a big gym, and at a reasonable rent was difficult. But eventually he found a huge basement available in a four storey building in Walthamstow, right next to St James’ Street station. The whole place was a mess and needed decorating. Len set to do it all himself and on the days I was was not working I went and helped him clear it out. I remember thinking that I was so knackered after a days work that doing a work out was easier compared to lugging piles of stuff up the stairs from the basement!

Eventually the gym opened and was a great success. It started off as a men’s only gym and as it grew Len expanded to a mens & ladies gym on the first floor and later on added another gym on the top floor for ladies only. This covered everyone’s needs, though I’ve got to say that I had the best workouts of my life in the basement bodybuilding gym.

Len’s gym attracted so many great characters. One was called Big Ken the Fish (who worked at Billingsgate fish market). Big Ken was about six foot four and built like a tank. He would mysteriously produce large boxes of giant prawns from his training bag and Len would dine like a king for a few days as he loved fresh king prawns and they were expensive even then. Then there was a mad taxi driver who worked nights, mostly in the west end of London. After his shifts he would come to the gym and tell everyone about which celebs and film stars he had driven about during the night. The stories about the celebs behaviour when he picked them up absolutely ratted in his taxi were outrageous. He told us one night he picked up Rudolf Nureyev (the world famous ballet dancer). Rudolf chatted him up and (no names as many of these guys are still alive), had a sexual liaison with him in the taxi.

Another chap Ken had a great voice and although he was a successful business man he much preferred to sing in the clubs at night. One guy Rich Len (as we used to call him) would roll up to the gym in his chauffeur driven Rolls Royce and train whilst the chauffeur waited in the car. Rich Len was a very successful businessman who had amongst his businesses a company that made real fur coats costing thousands of pounds. Rich Len was a very generous man and a personal friend of Len Sell. Rich Len would often invite a few of the guys from the gym and their wives and girlfriends to dinner at some of the top restaurants in London. I was always amazed at the beautiful girlfriends Rich Len had. There seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of them, all around twenty five years of age. Rich Len was in his late sixties when I first met him and he was still going strong well into his eighties and it appears it wasn’t just his money that he had an unlimited amount of – it was his libido as well!

Guys at Len’s gym often trained with a mate as their training partner and the competition between various pairs was fierce but friendly and often a great laugh. One pair would see some other guys doing squats or bench press (or any exercise), and start taking the piss. Saying things like “it must be ladies night on the bench press looking at those weights” . Or they would wait until another pair were doing chins and stand behind them making them laugh and watch them fall to the ground laughing.

The greatest insult you could shout out so all could hear was to call someone a ‘skelly’ (short for skeleton), meaning that they had no muscle at all. You knew if you named someone a skelly that they would try twice as hard to lift weights they thought you could not match and then say to you “OK nob head (or words to that effect) let’s see you do better”.

Those workouts are etched in my memory and I can still recall the condensation running down the mirrors, the shouts of encouragement when the whole gym would stop and watch someone try a massive maximum lift and will them on to succeed. The banter was fantastic and the camaraderie unmatched. You could not help but grow in a hot bed of intensity and the great friendly atmosphere that Len created in his gym. Every time I went there I looked forward to it. I came out of the gym after all the banter, enthusiasm and effort feeling renewed. Everything was OK in the world and there was nothing that I couldn’t do. I guess the word that sums it up is that I left the gym feeling invincible. Not in a warlike sense, but one that you felt you could achieve anything.

*******

As Len’s gym grew and became very well known. Bodybuilding was becoming noticed by the general public due to the Hercules movies of Steve Reeves (the American bodybuilder Mr Universe) along with our own multi Mr Universe winner Reg Park and the great self publicity of Arnold Schwarzenegger. This popularity meant that various TV companies wanted to do documentaries about bodybuilding and asked to film at Len’s gym. Many of these producers only wanted to take the piss out of the guys that trained and bodybuilding in general. Len was very wary about how his gym and sport were going to be portrayed, knowing that in the editing process what seems like a good positive filming full of interviews with various members about their motivation and footage of us all training with the sweat pouring off us could be turned into ridicule and a comedy show in the editing process.

One particular program we did for London Weekend Television was being filmed and there was a Turkish bloke who had only been at the gym for a few weeks and thought himself the dogs b*ll*cks. He wasn’t liked by anyone in the gym and he tried to get in every shot the cameraman took. This bloke waited until the camera was filling an interview and walked past slowly doing arm curls and putting on a grimacing face, like he was about to blow his balls off with the effort. No matter how many times the director asked him to move, the nutter kept appearing. In the end Len grabbed him and threw him out of the gym and I mean threw! Len was massively strong and because he was only about 5’7” tall, people misjudged him. In fact, I have trained with champion bodybuilders, huge guys, some six and a half feet tall but pound for pound Len was the strongest guy I ever met. It took four of us to lift in the 220 pound dumbbells he could bench press (thats 100kg dumbbell in each hand for you young’s). Yes, he really was a Hercules.