The best places to get a steam bath in London

"Both Holmes and I had a weakness for the Turkish bath. It was over a smoke in the pleasant lassitude of the drying-room that I have found him less reticent and more human than anywhere else."

If it was good enough for Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, it's good enough for me. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing about the exploits of his great detective, London was littered with Turkish baths. They had been introduced in the mid-19th century by Scottish politician David Urquhart, who was a keen admirer of Turkish culture.

There were soon hundreds of bathhouses across Britain, and their popularity continued into the 20th century. Nowadays, however, there are few of these facilities left, and London is no longer mentioned in the same breath as Istanbul when it comes to communal baths. Curious about that era, I went in search of some hardy survivors and a surprising newcomer to the art of bathing with steam.

PORCHESTER SPA

This Bayswater establishment, not far from Paddington Station, is a remarkable relic from the golden age of London's Turkish baths. Dating from 1929, its largely unchanged interior is a time capsule of Art Deco bathhouses.

The entrance level features a rest area lined with recliners, set beneath ceilings with decorative mouldings. Down one level is an icy plunge pool, overlooked by an elegant statue of a jade-green woman holding a spherical lamp.

Below this is the heart of the operation, a maze of steam rooms, heated rooms, saunas and relaxation rooms, marked by signs using Latin names to indicate their functions: such as tepidarium (warm), caldarium (hotter) and laconium (hottest). In one volcanically hot steam room, bathers take turns to apply a soapy raffia brush to each other, a practice inherited from traditional Jewish baths that's known as schmeissing.

There's a wonderful sense of history in this place, and an even greater sense of community. Judging from the relaxed vibe and quietly chatting patrons, many of its visitors are regulars who take a soak as part of their weekly routine. Swimwear is not required within the bath area during its regular men-only and women-only sessions, maintaining an ancient tradition of the bathhouse as a simple, communal experience.

Since my visit, a thorough renovation has reversed years of wear and tear, with the venue reopening in November 2019. Hopefully its historic atmosphere and relaxed vibe will be maintained by this much-needed refurbishment.

The Porchester Spa also offers treatments such as massages and body scrubs, which can be booked online in advance.

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See porchesterspatreatments.co.uk

IRONMONGER ROW BATHS

Across town in Islington are baths of a similar age, but which have been thoroughly modernised. Opened in 1931 as a public washhouse for locals with no bathroom at home, the Ironmonger Row Baths had a set of Turkish baths added later that decade. In 2012 a major renovation was completed, which has lent a thoroughly refreshed look to the facility.

When I arrive at the building on a wet Monday afternoon, my spirits are lifted by the exterior, an attractive brick structure facing a small park, with solid Romanesque arches framing sash windows. The spa area is downstairs, in whose relaxation zone I'm soon waiting for a treatment.

Usually I'll book nothing more fancy than a basic massage, but this time I'm receiving something special: a signature treatment called the Turkish Experience, which follows a strict sequence.

First there's a black soap body rub, then seven minutes sitting in an aromatic steam room (I choose eucalyptus and mint). Next is a scrub, then seven more minutes in a sauna (herbal this time). Finally, shea butter is applied to my body. The treatment is done, and I'm directed to the heated benches of the spa's caldarium to sit and, well, marinate. It's been pleasant, if a touch mystifying.

I shuttle between the saunas and steam rooms for a while, getting the most out of the experience but finding the tasteful modern makeover lacks the retro appeal of the Porchester. Also, the spa's policy of having to wear swimwear even in single-gender sessions seems disappointingly un-European.

See spaexperience.org.uk

BANYA NO 1

A short distance north of Ironmongers Row is Banya No 1, in the district of Hoxton. At first glance this Russian-style bathhouse seems a newcomer to the London spa scene, sitting within the basement of a new building. However, on an interior wall is a link to the city's Victorian-era bathhouse heyday: a sign which once advertised a set of Russian baths on Brick Lane, promising "invaluable relief for rheumatism, lumbago and allied complaints."

This successor is a compact but faithful outpost of Russian bath culture, and I'm visiting on a men-only evening when nakedness is optional. The bather first wraps a towel or a sheet around himself (the latter is more authentic, an attendant tells me), then heads to the wet area. This room contains a sauna, a plunge pool, a treatment area, and an alarming wooden bucket on a rope which releases cold water over one's head at a pull. I'm not sure of the best order in which to experience these things, but simple alternation seems to work: from sauna to bucket to icy pool.

But there's more. I've booked a package which includes Parenie, which involves being lightly beaten in the sauna with a bundle of birch, oak and eucalyptus twigs (stirring up the heated air around the body). After a cold plunge I proceed to the treatment room, where I'm given a honey and salt scrub. After five minutes in the sauna, it's time for a rinse.

At this point I re-wrap myself and head to the café-bar area, sitting in a booth which resembles an old train compartment with dark green cushioned benches. This is where patrons take a break from the hot air and cold water, selecting from an appealing Russian menu.

I order a bowl of borsch, followed by potato and mushroom dumplings with sour cream. They're excellent. Then I down a shot of vodka. Why not? I'm sure it's good for me. 

See gobanya.co.uk

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Qantas has frequent flights from Australia to London via Perth or Singapore, see qantas.com

STAY

The Pilgrm (thepilgrm.com) offers stylish accommodation in a renovated Victorian-era building next to Paddington Station, from £119 ($A225) a night.  For more luxury, bed down in the Art Deco-styled elegance of The Beaumont, Mayfair (thebeaumont.com), from £429 a night.

MORE

traveller.com.au/london

visitbritain.com

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Visit Britain.

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