Friday, February 01, 2008

When in London, do as the Turks do

It's not often that I indulge in a spa day but when I do, I have a few basic requirements. Warm rooms. Soft lighting. Fluffy towels and bathrobes. No drop ceilings. A musical selection that goes beyond Enya. A permeating scent of lavender. Or sandalwood -- I'm not picky. The thoughtful touches don't matter much provided that there are some; it's not asking much, I would think, for a place that specializes in relaxation to set the mood a bit. But I willingly threw all those requirements out the window last week for a relaxing trip to the Turkish Baths at Ironmonger Row.

Going into this outing, I wasn't quite sure how to reconcile the description of this "haven of relaxation" with experienced friends' advice to bring my flip flops. Plunge pools and saunas and steam rooms all sounded lovely, but the Baths' location in the midst of a council block and the £7.70 price tag for three hours' relaxation tempered the mental image a bit. "It's like nothing else you've ever experienced," one of the friends who organized our little outing assured me. "It's certainly not luxurious, but it's relaxing all the same." I was intrigued, and since I was also pretty sure that I wasn't going to encounter any Turkish Baths back in the States, now seemed as good a time as any to give it a go. I packed up my flip flops and off we went.

There were 5 of us who made the trip together, and we met up in the lobby of the Leisure Centre which houses the Baths about an hour after the morning school run. I had envisioned an old building, possibly art deco or baroque, something uniquely European and undeniably charming in its age. What I found instead was a mid-1930s facility which looked suspiciously like an unrenovated YMCA. People were arriving for aerobics classes in other parts of the building and I even spotted a laundry off to one side where patrons appeared to be dropping off their bed linens and unmentionables for cleaning. This was a genuine Turkish Bath? On the up side, the towel that the receptionist handed me after I'd forked over my £7.70 was suitably fluffy (albeit a slightly glaring shade of aqua). If I closed my eyes, I thought as I followed my friends down a decidedly municipal-looking flight of stairs, maybe I could sink into my fluffy towel and imagine myself into that haven of relaxation I'd been promised.

Closing my eyes, as it turned out, would have been a terrible mistake. To be fully appreciated, these Turkish Baths needed to be seen and appreciated for what they were. An attendant showed us around the place -- a TV room with an attached kitchen and some plastic lounge chairs where one could get a sandwich or a cup of tea and have a chat. A changing room filled with beds of indeterminate age and some more loungers where you could read a magazine or have a little snooze. The promised plunge pool... a small, square of cement filled with freezing cold green water. (Was that eucalyptus or disinfectant in there?) Two marble slabs in a corner where one could get a scrub (though not today, we were informed, as the regular scrubber was home with an ill child). A pulsating, thick steam room (definitely eucalyptus this time). Three interconnected saunas which offered increasing amounts of heat as you moved through them. Down separate corridors, two massage therapy rooms and a large swimming pool. The whole tour took about two minutes. I was a bit dubious about the plunge pool, but the rest of the place looked OK if a bit basic. I donned a bathing costume and got down to the business of relaxing.

Several hours later, having steamed and heated and lounged to my heart's content, I met up with my friends in the TV room to order some lunch. I had just emerged from a surprisingly good half hour massage and was feeling undeniably relaxed, and my friends looked equally comfortable. As our attendant Ann prepared sandwiches and tea for us, we chatted with her and the other patrons in the room about the Turkish Baths experience. "A few years ago, they opened a spa down the road and all of our regulars went to try it," Ann told us as she settled down with her own cup of tea. "They were back a week later. Said it didn't compare to this place." A woman lying on a lounger in a bathrobe she'd clearly brought from home nodded her agreement. "I lived around the corner when I started coming here, but now I'm living in South West London," she said. "I tried a few local places, but in the end I came back here. I come every Friday. Sometimes I read the paper and sometimes I actually fall asleep, but I always look forward to a relaxing day." It was clear talking to this woman that she works hard the other 6 days a week, but her Fridays at the Turkish Baths are obviously an important priority in her life. I couldn't quite see myself toting my bathrobe and flip flops across London for this each week, but her description of her weekly visits to the Baths definitely got me thinking about life balance in a whole new way.

Our sandwiches, a bargain at £1.60 ("Are my prices OK?" Ann asked me as I counted out change for her), were just what we needed -- it's amazing how hungry relaxation can make a person. Even better was the conversation we enjoyed with Ann, who is clearly the heart of the place. A charming woman of indeterminate age, she has lived in the neighborhood all her life and maintained the Turkish Baths for the past 5 years. As we ate, she regaled us with stories about her life and the Baths and the regulars who frequent the place. I'm sure she's never had any formal PR or marketing education, but Ann's one heck of a natural saleswoman. She loves her work, which has seen her through an illness and sustained her even as she cares for an elderly mother at home, and her pride in her little domain is both undeniable and a bit inspiring. The more she talked, the more I warmed to this odd little place. I stopped thinking about how due the facility was for a good makeover and started appreciating it for the slightly bizarre oasis of calm it actually was. "There's no place like it," Ann told us proudly as we eventually left amidst a flurry of goodbyes and promises to return soon. I couldn't have agreed more.


Blogger Iota said...

I didn't think you could buy anything at all in London for #7.70 these days, so that alone is a great reason to go there. It sounds a fantastic day out.

10:21 PM  
Blogger denzylle said...

Hey, you ventured into East London!

I've used three Turkish baths in London and Ironmonger Row is by far the cheapest and, probably, the best value.

If you do want the Victorian or Art Deco experience, try York Hall (further East) or Porchester Baths (in West London), respectively.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I really never go to spas or get pedicures or anything of the sort because the cost of it all takes any relaxation right out of me. I'm more relaxed when I DON'T spend money. But for that price, I think I could get into a regular visit to the Turkist Baths! :)

9:02 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

And yes, that would be Turkish Baths. But let me know if you find any Turkist Baths there, too. *grin*

9:03 PM  

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