An everyman sauna for London?

There’s been a decline of saunas in local authority leisure centres over the past few years. As budgets are squeezed they are often the first facilities to go as they’re seen as uneconomical and take up a lot of space. The only people bucking the trend are the Better Leisure Group who are doing a really good job of running leisure centres on behalf of local authorities. They often include a good affordable sauna in their leisure centres, under the title Spa London, including ones at Wimbledon, Swiss Cottage and Ironmonger’s Row.  

It was due to the popularity of the Wimbledon spa that I ended up at the Putney Leisure Centre sauna (run by Places for People Leisure). I was in need of a Sunday afternoon sauna and my regular Wimbledon one had been booked up so I turned to the internet to find another local one.

I couldn’t find any photos of the sauna online so I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I found out that it was only £10, half the price of the Spa London ones, I thought there would be an element of you pay for what you get. And I wasn’t too wrong.

The sauna and steam room sit in a cordoned off area just next to the main swimming pool. The real down side here was that there was constant screaming from the kids dive bombing off the dive boards! Although I presume it’s a lot more peaceful during the week.

pitch_image_1418132027_457699

All the standard facilities are there though: a large sauna and steam room, cold shower, a Jacuzzi, drinking water and a resting area. Everything was just not quite how you’d like them though. The sauna room was not quite hot enough, the Jacuzzi was cold, and the resting area was half a dozen garden furniture seats. The end result is more of a functional rather than pleasurable experience, although the regulars were a friendly bunch.

Image result for putney leisure centre sauna

Despite these niggles I think there is a lot to be said for an everyman sauna that is good value, doesn’t need to be booked and provides an experience akin to the concept of public bathing. I think with a bit more focus on the sauna element of the leisure centre this place could improve.

Summary: A solid functional sauna and good value but an underwhelming experience.

Overall sauna experience: Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!
Facilities: Basic, Standard, Excellent
Cost:  £££

Website: http://www.placesforpeopleleisure.org/centres/putney-leisure-centre/

Too hot too handle!

This baby is definitely in the premier league of sauna destinations – 15 sauna and steam rooms accompanied by a healthy aufguss schedule, alongside a variety of indoor and outdoor pools, and chill out areas – SchwabenQuellen is awesome!

There’s something of the Crystal Maze about this large jungle sauna complex in Stuttgart. Each sauna is themed and there’s loads of spaces to discover on several floors which makes it a lot bigger than it initially seems.

whirlpool_869_bs_445pix_1

As a big complex it also has the room to include some facilities above the norm, such as the solarium, Salt Cave and snow room – something I’ve not come across before. It’s essentially a freezer room with a wind blowing through it – not a very pleasant experience but it cools you down quickly!

tibet_s_b_s1_1920x1080pix

I made the mistake at the aufguss (randomly to the tune of Van Halen’s ‘Jump’) in the Canadian lodge sauna room to go on the top of four tiers. Ice was used on the coals and I can honestly say that was the most intense sauna I’ve ever had! I thought I was going to have to make a very embarrassing climb down but fortunately the aufguss finished just before I was about to pass out and I was able to make a swift exit to the plunge pool. My mate complained that his teeth were getting hot!

stuttgartschwabenqellen_c_schwabenquellen03

We went in October when Wassen was on – Stuttgart’s (better) version of Oktoberfest – all the fun without any Aussies or Americans 😉

There is definitely an element of bravado when it comes to aufguss, but with each room being different it’s hard to judge how hot it’s going to get. I learnt my lesson though and went for a lower tier when I went in for another aufguss in the same room.

The place has friendly staff, is really well maintained and clean and has a number of nice touches, such as the Ottoman steam room with a hot tub in it.

osmanisches_bad_bg

The only bugbear with SchwabenQuellen is that the main pool, the central point for the complex, has cold water in it. I’m not sure what the thinking is here as it could be a great communal space. But as it is you only want to spend a short amount of time in there.

sml-schwabenquellen

This, however, is a great sauna complex – choice, intrigue, peace, and a sense of fun. SchwabenQuellen should be on anyone’s list if they’re going to Stuttgart.    

Summary: A sauna complex at the top of its game.

Overall sauna experience: Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!

Facilities: Basic, Standard, Excellent  

Cost:  £££

Website: http://schwabenquellen.de/de

Trip Advisor: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g187291-d2618213-Reviews-Schwabenquellen-Stuttgart_Baden_Wurttemberg.html

 

Holy Sauna!

This sauna has been a bit of a mythical status for us as we read about it a few years ago and couldn’t quite believe that a sauna existed under a Finnish church in East London!

We finally made a pilgrimage to the venue in May and we’re sure glad we did.

This is one of only a handful of authentic (i.e. naked) saunas in London which caters for people who just like to sauna!

The sauna does indeed sit in the church’s basement. Lots of churches have crypts for keeping the dead but this church has a sauna crypt for the living! There is that Finnish saying – treat a sauna like a church – and this place takes that phrase literally.

The church itself also doubles as a community centre for Finnish culture and includes a shop of food treats for any homesick Finns! So you know you’re getting the real deal when you go to this sauna.

lontoo-1170-602c8194a9e8cbcd24eef229e27c47aa

The facilities themselves are basic but clean. There’s a changing room, cold showers and a sauna – which can fit up to 7 people if you’re close friends.

The main aspect that we liked about this sauna is that it was hot! I mean really hot. I know that sounds a stupid thing to say but a lot of saunas sit at around 84C and it can take a while to break the sweat but here we were able to get the heat up to an intense 90C! This was due to the fact that we could control the heat by adding water to the coals, a facility which larger saunas often don’t have as they don’t use coals to heat the room.

lontoo-1167-fc925320cd094da85a489d97757bb9bd

There are segregated sessions that are open to the public but you can also hire it privately – we asked a couple of other sauna buddies to join us, so as a mixed group of 4 we decided to do that. It meant that between the four of us it worked out at £8 each for an hour – pretty reasonable for London. This could become the new regular.

And if you’re looking for hydration afterwards then the fantastic Mayflower pub on the Thames is 5 mins away!

mayflower_11_20120810-123449
Summary: A no frills authentic sauna in the Capital – a unique venue.

Overall sauna experience: Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!
Facilities: Basic, Standard, Excellent  
Cost:  £££

Website: www.finnishchurch.org.uk/107-sauna

 

 

When saunas go bad

 

The Swiss Cottage Thai Massage & Spa in London follows a well trodden path of dozens of legitimate massage venues in the capital to include a sauna on the premises. Relaxing the muscles through heat before and after a massage ensures that the benefits are maximised and is a great way to help ensure total relaxation.

Unfortunately for the Thai massage venues that decide to include an onsite sauna it means that they have to come up against the space premium and economics of renting property in central London.

It means that the very admiral ideal of having a nice sauna on the premises is usually an afterthought and incorporated onto the existing site at a later stage, which makes them pretty small.

Whilst pioneers back in the day, the owners who decided to include a sauna in the basement have clearly left it along time since they’ve invested in the venue. In short, it’s a pretty tired and grotty and the kind of place that you wish you’d brought some flip flops for. A Google review said that they saw cockroaches there – we didn’t see any but I can well imagine.

The changing area is tiny and many of the locker doors have been smashed in – not exactly putting you in the mind frame for a relaxing experience!

The sauna room itself isn’t bad. It probably has a capacity of 7 or 8 and there is tiered seating, coals and a water bucket to ramp up the heat. There is also a small steam room and a couple of showers. The relaxation area is small, with seating for about five or six. Drinking water is available. The photos below must have been taken when it opened..

Capture

Capture3

Capture1

The clientele, mainly middle aged men, seemed like regulars and they brought a friendly vibe to the place.

Having said that, it’s not the kind of place you want to hang around and enjoy a sauna session in. We did a couple of short cycles and headed out.

A few online reviews mention that the massages are good here but we didn’t have time to try them. Arguably, most people will be there for a massage, with the sauna thrown in for free, so their expectations might be lower. But even taking that into account this place needs more than just a deep clean – it needs a decent refit!

The main things going for this sauna is that it’s open 24 hours, which can be really useful as most other saunas in London shut at 8pm – making it really difficult to fit one in after work. The other is cost – at £10 this is as cheap as you’ll find in London. You also don’t need to book, which is a rare luxury for London saunas.

At best, this is a functional sauna that meets a demand from locals for a no frills sauna. At worst, this place would be shut down if it was a restaurant.

Summary: Steer clear unless you can’t find anywhere else open.

Overall sauna experience: Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!

Facilities: Basic, Standard, Excellent  

Cost:  £££

Website: http://www.thaimassageswisscottage.co.uk

Urban Saunaring

What can you do with a vacant piece of land that is not going to get developed for a couple of years? Create a swimming pond and pop-up sauna of course!

This was the thinking behind the creation of a bit of the countryside amongst a huge construction site in London, which will eventually include Google’s new HQ in the UK.

The site is called King Cross Swimming Ponds and is the UK’s first ever man-made fresh water public bathing pond. The ponds opened in Spring 2015 and during the winter months a sauna is also on site.

It’s an absolutely brilliant concept and must be completely unique in the world. Not only that, it’s an idea that is well executed.

Choosing to utilise this space to create a relaxing oasis rather than have as a construction site office is just a fantastic bit of urban planning. Cities are stressful places to live so anything that improves our environment and wellbeing is very much welcomed and encouraged.

It was my first time in a cabin sauna and it’s really is amazing the atmosphere you can create in a small space. Intimate and quiet, the sauna provides the simple pleasure of being in a well designed space. And one of the benefits of a small sauna space is that you can control the heat a lot more easily – when you put water on the coals you can feel the heat change instantly.

Kings-Cross-Pond-Club-Sauna-opens-at-Kings-Cross

For a few people there the main attraction is the swimming pond. The 40 metre long pond is surrounded by wild flowers and grasses. Apparently the water is purified through a natural, closed-loop process process using wetland and submerged water plants to filter the water and keep it clear.

I have a new respect for people who enjoy pond swimming as the water was unbelievably cold! I couldn’t manage a long time in the water, but to have the contrast of temperature with the sauna was invigorating! This is as close as I’ve got to an authentic Finnish sauna. A cold plunge pool in a commercial spa just isn’t as complete as experience as jumping into a freezing lake!

The crowd was really mixed: some older ladies, a hen party, teenagers, and a couple of Russian guys. I think part of the reason for the wide mix of people was the cost  – a 2hr session was £3.50! Unbelievable value. More of this affordable pricing should be available and it would get a lot more people trying a sauna. 

The site and facilities are basic but clean and there are some nice touches.  The changing rooms for example, offer a throwback to traditional seaside changing huts of old. 

28F8ED3000000578-3092676-image-a-59_1432296361155.jpg

My only issue was that the sauna is only there in the winter months. I went in the last weekend of the sauna, which was disappearing at the end of April. NEWS FLASH: England is NOT a hot country! Getting rid of the sauna in April takes a very optimistic view of British summer! And the benefits of a sauna can be enjoyed all year round. Still, it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.

Is urban saunaring going to be the next big trend? I hope so. 

Summary: Feel alive by getting back to nature in the middle of the city.

Overall sauna experience: Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!
Facilities: Basic, Standard, Excellent  
Cost:  £££

Website: www.kingscrosspond.club

7 small spaces that could be converted into saunas

In the UK there’s a massive lack of saunas around for people to enjoy. And it would cost millions to establish lots of new saunas across the country. So rather than build new ones why don’t we just use the unloved buildings we have and convert them into saunas! Here’s a few examples  of some small buildings that could make great saunas….

Sheds

Most gardens have them and all they’re usually good for are storing some rusty garden tools. They already look pretty much like a sauna, so it wouldn’t take too much of an imagination leap to see them as working saunas. If every household with a shed changed its usage into a sauna the UK could be a saunaing nation within a week!

shed1

Beach Huts

I’m not sure if these quirky buildings exist much outside the UK but they could be great saunas. They’re empty for most of the year save for a few weekends where families use them to protect themselves from British ‘summer’ (i.e. rain). But by converting the beach hut into a sauna and with the sea substituting as the plunge pool you’d be able to have an invigorating sauna experience all year round.

Elizabeth-Beach-Hut-e1365013617406

Greenhouses

One for the extroverts! Most glasshouses are unused and only contain a few dead tomatoe plants. But with just a few additions these see-through buildings could be converted to create sauna conservatories. Not only would the sauna benefit from natural light but you’d be able to see the nature outside whilst you sweat.

halls-universal-12ft-x-8ft-wide-greenhouse-49qs9_original

Public toilets

After a deep clean and a bit of imagination these unloved buildings could become great community sauna assets. Just put £1 in and get 20 mins of sauna time!

Public_Toilets

Empty shops

There’s a growing trend in the UK of micro-pubs. These are one room pubs that follow the basic premise of KIS, KIS – Keep It Small, Keep It Simple. Traditional and basic this new style of pub often takes over empty shops as the rent is cheap. Using the same concept the model could be applied to saunas. Every high street could have one!

shop

Telephone boxes

The downside of everyone having a mobile phone these days is that it’s left a graveyard of thousands of unloved phone boxes on our streets (58,500 in the UK to be precise) . They might not be appropriate for a sauna conversion but if you put three together you could make a convenient changing room, steam room and shower!

unfold-in-telephone-boxes.jpg

Abandoned cars

You just need to convert the engine to take coals, add a funnel and put a plunge pool in the boot. And voila – enjoy a sauna ride!

car.jpg

Any thoughts on other buildings/spaces that could be converted?

Inside the world’s largest spa

Therme Erding is the daddy of European saunas. Forty minutes outside of Munich they’ve created a vast sauna complex that dwarves even large sauna establishments. 25 different themed saunas, loads of unique aufguss, a hamman and hot tubs. The centrepiece of the spa is a massive pool heated to 34 degrees that continues outside – great in winter and a swim-up bar means that you can hydrate after all those saunas! If you want to experience total sauna, this is the place to come.
description_spa-therme-erding_n102-11799-_l
After a day on the beers in Munich we headed to Therme Erding to recover and take it all in. We were also keen to escape a bitterly cold January and reap the heightened benefits of saunaring in winter.  And we were surely glad we did. Some quick highlights included:
  • An erupting geyser: the aim of the exploding geyser in the sauna room is to keep the air comfortably humid. But the clouds of steam and the bubbling activity create a bit more theatre than your average sauna room.
  • A Roman villa: what have the Romans ever done for us? You can recreate the high art of Roman bathing in a communal pool that looks like a Ben Hur set.
  • A bakery sauna: smell the delicious scent of baking bread whilst you cook in the sauna and enjoy your hard work by scoffing the bread rolls at the end.

Saunaparadies-Vitalbad_02.jpg

Therme Erding achieves a rare feat of managing a large volume of people well. Part of that is down to the scale of the place but it’s also due to the customer service. The staff doing the aufguss make a real effort to engage with the room and make you feel like you’re having a unique experience.
One of the rooms for example, was themed on recreating a Bavarian pub. You’re given a pint of beer and then a member of staff begins telling jokes and anecdotes. Then other people in the room would chip in with their own jokes. (This was all done in German of course, of which we speak little, but we laughed along anyway!) So the member of staff created an atmosphere that made you feel that he wasn’t just going through the motions, which you can often get at large attractions.
Zirbelstube
One of the other unique aufguss included a sauna where you’re given an ice eye mask and a receive guided meditation. You do have to get into the room early as the aufguss are popular. But if you’re keen and plan your timings you shouldn’t have a problem.
Some of the rooms are quite unique as well and I’d put a recreation of a Celtic feasting hall at the top of that list! And that’s we liked most about Therme Erding is that sense of fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. There is novelty and light heartedness alongside some serious sauna experiences.
 erding-celticsauna
As we stayed into the evening, a Caribbean show came on. Standing naked with hundreds of others, in a warm pool, with a beer, watching dance routines – what’s not to like!
A few comments on Trip Advisor mentions the crowds during the German holidays, but I think they mainly refer to the waterpark which is also part of the same complex. We found that outside of the aufguss most saunas were pretty quiet. A few other reviewers mention the price. But we thought that at 37 euros (£29) was pretty good for a day pass, as we were there all day. We also stayed in a local budget hotel rather than the onsite hotel to keep costs down.
On the whole the Trip Advisor comments and rating are overwhelmingly positive and you can feel people’s amazement of Therme Erding through their comments.
There really is something here for all sauna tastes from the intimate to the theatrical.
Since we went in January 2015 they’ve added more facilities and the website now bills itself as the biggest spa in the world!
Summary: A must. Probably the number 1 sauna complex in the world!
Overall sauna experience: Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!
Facilities: Basic, Standard, Excellent  
Cost: £££
Trip Advisor: here.

Black Forest bathing

slider-caracalla-12-slCaracalla Therme (Baden-Baden, Germany)
So good they named it twice, Baden-Baden is one of those lovely historic spa towns that still makes big business from its natural hot springs.
This place is where it all began for the sauna odyssey of the Sauna Boys so we’ve got a soft spot for this small and genteel town (which means that we can be mentioned in the same breath as Dostoyevsky, who also loved the town). We chose it as a long weekend destination for no other reason than it was the cheapest flight out of London! (again, much like Dostoyevsky).
Nestled in a valley at the edge of the Black Forest the town boasts two large sauna/spa complexes (coincidentally Baden-Baden translates to Bath-Bath) that cater for different crowds.
The first is Friedrichsbad – a Victorian monument to the ritual of Roman bathing. This upmarket establishment takes it thermal spring waters seriously.  
The second is Caracalla Therme – a family friendly spa/sauna multiplex on a 4,000 square metre site.
The huge complex is split between the main bathing area downstairs (swimwear) and the saunas upstairs (non swimwear).
The sense of space you get from the ground floor glass domed interior is impressive. It means that, coupled with a spacious outdoor bathing area, there is room for lots of various pools, plus there’s a rock grotto, steam bath, a brine inhalation room and a lazy river. My favourite are the pressure jets that pummel your shoulders into smithereens!    
The main event, however, is upstairs where you can find a large sauna room with a very good aufguss. Let’s just say you should only sit on the top tier if you like the heat you get by opening an oven door. Then there’s 7 or 8 other traditional sauna rooms of varying temperatures, a couple of which are in cabins outside, including my favourite sauna room – EVER! A room with a fire at one end which creates a really hot and dry heat. The room is quite dark, save for the fire, and the only noise is the crackling of logs. Bliss.
There’s also a good number of post sauna facilities including foot baths, a plunge pool, a solarium, cold bucket showers, drinking water and seating areas.
I really like this place. I think mainly because it’s consistently very good in all areas. Our latest visit was in October 2015 and we dragged a mate with us. He couldn’t understand why we were leaving the beer festival in Stuttgart (Wasen) to go to a quaint spa town! But he was completely converted to saunas after going there. I’ve also just read on Trip Advisor about a guy from the UK who’s been there 30 times in 25 years – wow! 
Talking of Trip Advisor – there are a number of comments on there about how busy it gets at certain times. It sounds like something that needs to be addressed if its lessening people’s experience of the place, although I wouldn’t want the owners to move to a system where you’d have to book in advance.
But the popularity of the place clearly shows that Caracalla Therme is onto something – or perhaps just reflects the fact that there isn’t much else to do in Baden-Baden! :).
In short, this is a great establishment that caters for all.
Overall sauna experience:  Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!
Facilities:  Basic, Standard, Excellent  
Cost:  £££
Summary: This place is worth going out of your way for
Trip Advisor: link

Hottest place in Scotland?

the-scotsman-51721_editAre saunas a winter only sport? I don’t think so as the benefits can be felt throughout the year but they are definitely more alluring when it’s cold!
That’s how I ended up at the spa in The Scotsman Hotel in Edinburgh in February 2015. I didn’t have a strong desire to go to that particular sauna but when I Googled ‘sauna’ and ‘Edinburgh’ it was the only non dodgy sauna that came up! I later read that the police have recently clamped down on Edinburgh’s sex workers and raided many of the city’s ‘saunas’.
Most 5 star hotels have some sort of spa attached to them and some of them make a real feature of them. Not all of them have saunas though, the Hilton on Park Lane, for example, surprisingly doesn’t. Fortunately the Scotsman does make a feature of their spa and it has a sauna.
The spa is housed in the old Scotsman Newspaper’s grand printing press so has a cool industrial feel to the place. And…wait for it….it has Scotland’s first stainless steel swimming pool – oooh!
On site is a smallish but good and clean sauna, steam room, and spa pool. The wraparound ‘Arctic shower’ is an interesting design although it takes a few seconds for the water to come through so it doesn’t quite provide you with that instant shock of cold.
What really makes this place though is the design – a spacious, sleek, and modern area that pays a nod to its heritage. The dim lighting, tranquillity and atmosphere makes this somewhere you can enjoy and relax in for hours.
Like the best of Edinburgh this places meshes the old and the new really well to create somewhere special.
Oh – and apparently the Penthouse suite at the Scotsman Hotel has an in-room sauna – nice touch!
Overall sauna experience: Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!
Facilities: Basic, Standard, Excellent
Cost:  £££
Summary: a cool venue to warm up and relax in.

A manifesto for London saunas

images-21London has many things in abundance. But one key facility it lacks is authentic sauna experiences. You can count on one hand how many venues offer it. That’s 2 million people for each sauna! It’s a real shame as London living is pretty stressful and a decent sauna can help make it less so.
So we’ve come up with a wish list of actions that we think could improve the sauna landscape in the Capital:
  1. A sauna multiplex! Well this is definitely a pie in the sky dream! The price of rents means that it would be really difficult for anyone to establish a large sauna complex near London and make it viable. Perhaps a bit more realistically it would be good if spas offered more than the bare minimum of one sauna and one steam room. It would be great to have more options in one venue.
  2. Saunas that reflect the area they’re based in. Hotel spas always try to be anything but about the establishment’s history. How many pastiche pan-Asian spas does a city need! Some hotels have amazingly designed spaces but you could be in any hotel in the world. We’d like to see a spa that recreated a Victorian London bathing house, for example.
  3. A reclaim the sauna campaign. For authentic sauna experiences to get a foothold in the capital they need to successfully differentiate themselves from the current market which, almost predominately, serves and targets two markets: 1. gay men looking for fast love and 2. ladies what lunch. The benefits and wholesomeness of European saunas need to be promoted to start changing the  general public’s perceptions of saunas, leading to changes in the industry. This campaign could work alongside some practical actions that spas could make to engage the public with their saunas including…
    • Better promotion of saunas in spas.  It’s actually not that easy to identify what places have a decent sauna from their websites – whether it’s a hotel or spa. This tends to reflect the fact that saunas are seen as a side show to the main event of spa treatments in most places. As such, they aren’t talked about much on websites and there are rarely photos of the actual sauna, resulting in Google not ranking them very high in its search results. This could easily be rectified.
    • No swimwear days. It’s just not as comfortable going for a sauna in your swimmies, but there are only a few, non gay, places in London that cater for people who want a proper sauna. If establishments started off small scale trials to test the market for non-swimwear days I think they’d be surprised at the level of demand. There are loads of north Europeans in the Capital for a start who would be keen. And there are ways to market the no swimwear days so that they attract genuine sauna enthusiasts.
    • A free sauna day. Based on the inaugural Helsinki Sauna Day, spas would open their doors free of charge to raise awareness and improve accessibility of saunas. This would require some coordination but I presume there are leisure industry groups that could help do that. It would also be good business for spas.
A London sauna manifesto in the making? Sure, we’ll go with that.
Any other ideas?