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.

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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.

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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/

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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..

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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.

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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. 

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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

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.

Lost Horizon at Battersea

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The UK’s answer to a Native American Sweat Lodge pitched its yurt in the backyard of the Magic Garden pub in Battersea in March 2016. ‘The Lost Horizon’ is a touring community that create a ‘festival within a festival’ at festivals like Glastonbury but for the first time brought their collective to a different kind of venue.

At the centre is a yurt, heated by coals, that seats about 20 people in a circle. The yurt heats up to provide a gentle sweat that was a lovely reprieve from a chilly March evening. Basic but good facilities are provided in the shape of a changing shed, cold shower drinking water in the yurt and a couple of chairs where massages were available.

But what really makes this sauna such a great experience was the people and vibe. A good balance of ages, races and gender created a convivial community and atmosphere. There was good chat, alongside a bit of chanting and yoga. It was probably the liveliest sauna we’ve been to, and that may not be to purists’ tastes, but I think that just reflected that it was a Saturday night, in a pub garden, in Battersea, so it completely worked. I understand that it’s a bit more mellow at festivals but the vibe is the same.

It was so popular that it was standing room only at some points (making a big difference to the temperature), which also added to the buzz.

I think the popularity really shows that there’s a big demand for authentic (i.e. naked and with a focus on the sauna experience) sauna in the capital. There’s very few options available for those who enjoy saunas as they should be, in the UK generally and London is no exception.

Beyond the sauna the Lost Horizon crew had created their own mini festival feel with a fire, some impromptu music, and cool decor and characters – including the Lost Horizon goblins! In the pub there were also some great bands playing. It really did provide a slice of festival life and it felt like we were a million miles away from the council estate we were surrounded by!

We really hope that the Lost Horizon peeps come back to London soon and ideally set up a residency!

We’re planning on catching up with them again at Glastonbury in June. Can’t wait.

 

Overall sauna experience:   Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!
Facilities:   Basic, Standard, Excellent
Cost:   £££
Summary: If you can find them then you’re in for a treat.
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