Full steam ahead: east London spas and saunas

Pic: Spa London

Pic: Spa London

As the Met Office predicts another chilly weekend ahead, thinking of novel ways to beat the cold can be tough. Layering on an extra jumper or two quickly gets stuffy, cranking up the thermostat may upset thrifty cohabitors, and staying in bed all day seems like a great idea until nature inevitably calls.

The recent refurbishment of Ironmonger Row Baths, a few minutes walk from Old Street Station, presents an option that, although not exactly new, is almost certainly overlooked. Its basement Turkish baths, now under the management of Spa London, have expanded – offering saunas, relaxation rooms, a plunge pool and a variety of different spa treatments. For £25, non-members can use the facilities for three hours.

“I think perceptions of spas have changed significantly over the past decade,” says Melissa Evans, group manager at the company. “What was once seen as an exclusive or unaffordable luxury is becoming increasingly mainstream.”

Considering the UK’s much-maligned climate, it’s surprising that spas and saunas have not already achieved the same popularity here as in other parts of the world.

Onsen. Pic: Ken Lee Flickr

Onsen. Pic: Ken Lee Flickr

Japan, for instance, boasts thousands of onsen, bath houses that take advantage of the country’s numerous hot springs. Popular particularly among families who want to spend some quality, albeit gender-segregated, time together, onsen usually offer pools of varying temperatures, outdoor sections in which to cool off, steam rooms and, of course, saunas.

“They’re one of the things I miss most about Japan,” says Rachel Webb, a producer from north London who used to live and work on the western island of Kyushu. “My apartment was in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. When I moved there first, it was winter and I didn’t have a heater, so going down to the onsen in my town was the only way to warm up.”

Closer to home, Budapest was once famously known as the “city of spas” due to its many elegantly designed Turkish baths. Although now more popularly frequented by citizens of an older vintage, they remain a significant part of the city’s charm. And, of course, let’s not forget Finland, the home of the sauna, where most homes have their own one built in. As an antidote to the Scandinavian climate, their popularity comes as no great surprise.

Turkish Bath. Pic: Justin Reid Flickr

Turkish Bath. Pic: Justin Reid Flickr

Beyond recreation, saunas, spas and more traditional hydrotherapy may have health benefits, too. The idea of “taking the waters” for medicinal purposes sounds antiquated but contemporary research shows noticeable effects on well-being.

Academics in the United States and Finland have found sauna use helps increase mobility for people with rheumatoid arthritis and provides relief for sufferers of asthma and bronchitis. It can also improve endurance sports performance, as one study in New Zealand found among long distance runners.

In addition to the growing visibility of these benefits, the emergence of public sector spas may increase their popularity here. In May 2007, Spa London opened the UK’s first in the basement of York Hall Leisure Centre, Bethnal Green. A collaborative effort by Tower Hamlets Council and non-profit co-operative Greenwich Leisure Limited, borough residents and visitors on social benefits get significant discounts.

The project has proven popular – it was named ‘Day Spa of the Year’ at the 2010 Professional Beauty Awards and last year attracted 5,000 visitors from the borough alone. Other locations have followed in Camden, Soho, Surrey and, of course, on Ironmonger Row. A new branch is due to open in Wimbledon this spring.

If you’re not after the full spa experience, you can find saunas and steam rooms in public gyms such as the Clissold, Britannia and King’s Hall leisure centres in Hackney, and the Mile End and Whitechapel sports centres in Tower Hamlets. Casual visitors pay an annual membership fee of £5.20, then £3.90 per visit; gender-segregated sessions are also available.

So as temperatures drop again this weekend cast off those extra jumpers and try something a little more relaxing.

To search for public leisure centres with saunas near you, see better.org.uk. More information about Spa London can be found at spa-london.org.

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