I spent my gap year in Moscow learning Russian. With not a jot of the language to get by on and taken aback by the freezing weather, my world shrunk to calendar-watching and English-language books. It was a difficult experience by most measures. I stayed for the winter and left in spring when the snow melted. There were many things I loved about Russia: vodka, landscape, literature. If only I‘d outlasted the winter.
But one favourite activity on those dark nights was visiting the banya. The banya is a public bathhouse complete with a sauna, icy plunge pool, and a private café with a seating area. Moving between extremes of hot and cold; taking interludes to sup on beer and gossip with friends; getting gently beaten by birch and oak leaves and rolling in the untouched snow outside: washing is transformed into a social activity performed over a leisurely hour or three. Sweating out my sorrows in a sauna, those are happy memories indeed.
I fear that saunas and plunge pools will never be the cheerful and edifying experiences for the British that they are for Russians, Turks and others. With our pokey showers, private bathrooms and grotty public pools, we‘re surely missing a trick. Hoping to be proved wrong, I packed my wash bag and set out to test three London baths. When it comes to sharing a shower with the Great British public, hesitation never served anyone well.
Finnish sauna: scandi functionality
London‘s Finnish sauna is in the basement of a Finnish church in Rotherhithe, south east London. I arrange to meet my Russian friend who‘s a hardened convert to public baths and a long-time banya companion of mine. She‘s been abroad and I‘ve not seen her for eight months. We meet there and then, in the sauna, naked. I want to hug her but am stuck. When you meet a friend fully unclothed, do you give them a hug? I opt for a loose arm wrap, making sure my wobbly bits don‘t touch her wobbly bits.
This is the no frills experience: a tiny wee thing of a sauna, a shower room and a rudimentary glass door between the two. Five of us are squeezed into the sauna, each politely balancing on a disposable paper seat that‘s issued at the reception upstairs. I can‘t remember the last time I shaved my underarms and legs and a quick glance about the place confirms that, yes, I‘m officially the hairiest person in the sauna.
Thankfully my attention is diverted by the fountain of sweat that is cascading off me from the suffocating heat. It‘s 85 degrees and it‘s glorious. Some minutes later I begin to worry my liver is cooking, and I stagger out to have a freezing cold shower, gulping desperately from the furious temperature shift. Incredible.
The Finnish Church in London / www.finnishchurch.org.uk
Banya No.1: Russian nostalgia
On the sauna grapevine, I learn that an authentically Russian banya has recently opened in London. Called Banya No.1, it‘s located in Old Street in one of those glass-fronted new builds. If this seems an incongruous location for a sauna, fear not, dear banya hunter: dainty felt wash hats are sold behind the
Counter, alongside Latvian mud masks and bundles of birch and oak.
Friendly Alex at reception tells me that diplomats and civil servants—keen to relive the banyas of their Russian foreign postings—are regulars. He points towards the rapturous praise on show in the visitor book. “Getting hit with birch leaves was great and jumping in the cold water afterwards was better than my first night with a girl,“ reads one comment.
The sauna is vast. Garage-sized. So big I wonder if the heat will pack a punch. As I lay hesitantly on the wooden bench, someone bustles in and pours more water on the hot stones. A terrifying spit of heat hisses out. The room rises in temperature. We‘re on perhaps 85-ish-degrees. I can‘t quite make out the gauge, but opt to lie back, momentarily absenting myself from the responsibilities of banya journalism.
Then Oleg walks in. A burly man in shorts, he instructs me to lie face down on a nearby wooden table and proceeds to whip me with a bunch of wet oak leaves. Spinning the hot air from on high and bringing it gently down, it‘s a massage like no other. I am intoxicated and, with my face pressed indelicately on a bundle of oak leaves, dizzy from the searing heat. Then Oleg guides me outside to a row of ice buckets, dunks two over my head, and points towards the plunge pool. I take a dip and my skin promptly turns strawberry pink in protest. Soon after, I‘m treated to a salt and honey rub in a wonderful, womb-like cove of marble and magic. I sit back and close my eyes, feeling like I‘m back in Moscow or somewhere very close to heaven.
Banya No.1 / www.gobanya.co.uk
Virgin active: british grit
There‘s a swingers‘ sauna in North London and plenty of male-only saunas in town. But a no-sex-please-we‘re-British public sauna? These exist within the confines of classy gyms.
There‘s a Virgin Active near work so I sneak a visit mid-week. Upstairs in the changing room is a rudimentary row of shower cubicles and I head straight for the steam room.
Five minutes in and someone begins a full-body exfoliation some two feet away from me. She‘s standing, fully naked, scraping the dry skin off her legs with vigour and gusto. Picturing the ugly dispersal of skin flakes and exfoliant about the place is more than I can stomach, so I make to leave but not before accidentally hitting the panic button, which flashes red and beeps like a microwave. An attendant rushes in.
I try my luck at the sauna one room down. But unlike the Finnish and Russian saunas, which use hot stones and water to heat the room, this one has what appears to be a large radiator powering it. The temperature is a meagre 75 degrees. I feel like a wet jumper in a lukewarm airing cupboard and leave.
Come back, Oleg!