Put off the by idea getting naked with a bunch of strangers and going through some kind of water torture at the hands of a bossy masseuse? Fear not, we’re here to tell you that a visit to a Victorian Turkish bath is a very different experience!
A monthly aromatherapy massage is how I reward myself for the last four weeks of hard work, a chance to unwind those shoulder muscles and completely relax to the sounds of plinky plonky music and the smell of ylang ylang. Clearly I love a pampering session, but until recently I wasn’t sure if a Victorian Turkish bath was a place I wanted to visit.
Swimming costume optional?!
This was, of course, because I’d heard off-putting stories of large scary masseuses that would douse you with buckets of ice-cold water then roughly rub you down with their calloused hands. Oh and of course I dreaded the idea of having to walk around starkers in a room full of strangers. Although aspects of this can be found in classic Turkish baths, also known as hammams, my recent experience showed me that a trip to a Victorian Turkish bath isn’t as traumatic!
What to expect at a Victorian Turkish bath
During my recent trip to Harrogate I entered the town’s Victorian Turkish baths with some trepidation, having visited the website but still not 100 per cent sure what to expect. Swimming costume optional? Eek!
Sure, there were a few ladies comfortable enough in their own skin to wander around naked, but I quickly discovered that the majority, like myself, came in their cossies and I began to feel more at ease. I’d already fallen in love with the look of the place even before leaving the changing rooms, which was all polished hardwood and velvet curtains, but walking out into the main bath you discover the building itself is a real work of art!
Jaw dropping architecture
Refurbished in 2002 the spa was made to look at is it did back when originally opened in 1897, keeping the Moorish design that included Islamic arches and screens, glazed brickwork, arabesque painted ceilings and mosaic floors.
After staring at the walls and ceiling for I don’t know how long, a member of staff came along to offer some pointers on the Victorian Turkish bath ritual. Here’s what I learnt.
Forget the scary attendants!
Unlike hammams there are no assistants to massage or bathe you – sure you can book a private massage or treatment but it isn’t part of the main bath experience. At Harrogate you simply navigate a selection of rooms designed to cleanse and relax your body.
You start by jumping under a shower before entering the steam room – where you won’t be able to see beyond the length of your arm. After 3-5 minutes of breathing in hot eucalyptus you’ll have got used to it, but by then it’s time to jump back under the shower before preparing yourself for the plunge pool.
Hot and cold
This is a (very) cold pool that you need to immerse yourself in, which helps improve circulation, flush toxins from the muscles and tone skin. While the pros headed straight in and began swimming lengths of the small pool I inched my way in a step at a time, taking a couple of minutes to work my way down the side of the pool until my shoulders were under the water. I don’t think I could describe the experience as pleasurable unlike some of my fellow bathers, but once acclimatised, it did feel refreshing!
Having got the scariest part of the baths out of the way I was ready for the final section, working my way through the three rooms which circulate heated air before having a rest in the relaxation area. Starting in the tepidarium your body gets used to the heat before you move into the calidarium, eventually making your way to the hottest of the three rooms, the laconium. Picture a sauna but replace the wood with Middle Eastern ceramics and you’re starting to get the idea of what these rooms are like. You simply find a free spot, get comfy and let the heat warm your body and open your pores, spending as little or as long as you feel comfortable in each section.
Rinse and repeat!
At this point it’s a matter of (literally) rinse and repeat, and staff recommend a stay of an hour and a half in order to get the maximum benefit. So, simply wander the baths until you’ve had your fill then grab a lounger in the long relaxation room, the coolest area, which allows you to acclimatise to the less balmy UK temperature outside.
Should you visit a Victorian Turkish bath?
As someone with bad circulation who spends at least three months of the year feeling cold to my core, I adored the sense of warmth I felt on leaving the bath and I have to say my skin did feel toned and looked clearer the following morning.
The experience itself was really enjoyable (ok, even the plunge pool in its own unique way!) and a great way to unwind. If you’re lucky enough to live near a Victorian Turkish bath I truly recommend you throw out your preconceptions and embrace this wonderful Victorian ritual!
Victorian Turkish baths – the facts
- Unlike hammams, visitors are not washed down or massaged by attendants in the main baths.
- When you visit a Victorian Turkish bath swimming costumes are optional, but it’s not obligatory to go naked, and more people come in their swimming costumes than without.
- Most Victorian Turkish baths offer single sex and mixed sessions, with swimwear mandatory if you attend a session open to everyone.
- Victorian Turkish baths are quiet, relaxing settings. Young children are not allowed into the treatment area and mobile phones are not permitted. Bring a magazine or book and have a digital detox!
- There are currently only five towns or cities where you can find Victorian (or Victorian-style) Turkish baths in England. These are Harrogate, Carlisle, London, Northampton and Swindon. Good news is the turkish bath in Newcastle upon Tyne is set to reopen very soon. In Scotland there are two: Edinburgh and Glasgow.
All images credit Visit England/Diana Jarvis. We were the guests of www.visitharrogate.co.uk during our trip to Yorkshire. As ever, all opinions are our own.