Finnish Wimbledon

My grandfather was from Finland and, although he died long before I was born, I always felt an affinity for the place, its landscape, traditions and culture. On a visit to see family there when I was 12, I visited the headquarters of the Finnish Sauna Society.  I didn’t know it at the time but having your first sauna there is a bit like playing your first game of tennis on centre court at Wimbledon.

The Finnish Sauna Society’s mission is to promote sauna culture across the world and it does this from a collection of small cabins dotted in woodland on an island not far from the centre of Helsinki.  In amongst the birch and pine trees there is a range of woodfired saunas including several traditional smoke saunas (no chimney so the smoke from the wood collects in the sauna staining the wood black over time) , one called “The Church”, presumably because it’s so hot you have to get on your knees when you enter.  You can get something to eat and drink at a simple café and, if there’s no snow on the ground to roll in, you can make your way down a jetty and jump straight into the Baltic to cool down. Charging down that jetty and diving into the water with my brothers is one of my happiest childhood memories and it underlines how sauna and banya can be an intensely emotional and nostalgic experience. When we left that day, we were all presented with a certificate stating that we were now “Knights of the Sauna” and had observed the “Ritual of Ordeal by Steam”. That certificate hangs in my own modest sauna at home and it still makes me smile that the name of the lady who gave me a scrub was Paula Harvista.

Half Blind with Terror

In my 20’s I went to live and work in Russia and discovered the banya. I remember seeing a group of young conscripts queuing on a street in St Petersburg and learned that they were waiting to enter Pushkarskaya banya for their weekly bath. Soon afterwards I steeled myself to visit the same place. Having negotiated the purchase of a ticket as well as the hire of a sheet and slippers, I entered the banya proper.  Removing my glasses because of the heat and humidity, I could barely see a thing. Already apprehensive, I was now half blind and what I thought I saw didn’t help. It was a vision of hell – fire, water, leaves, hissing pipes, red flesh. I was sold and went weekly thereafter.   

Flashman at the Banya

I was reminded of a scene from one of my favourite novels, “Flashman At The Charge”, which tells the story of a fictional Victorian soldier, adventurer and cad who is dispatched to fight the Russians in Crimea. Captured at the Charge of the Light Brigade, Flashman is held hostage at the estate of a Russian nobleman, where he is introduced to the pleasures of the banya by his host’s lascivious sister.

“It was a big log structure, divided down the middle by a high partition, and in the half where we stood was a raised wooden slab like a butcher’s block, surrounded by a trench in the floor. Presently the serfs came in, carrying on metal stretchers great glowing stones which they laid in the trench; the heat was terrific and Aunt Sara explained to me that you lay on the slab naked, while the minions outside poured cold water through the openings at the base if the wall, which exploded into steam when it touched the stones…. It hissed and splashed on the stones, and in a twinkling the place was like London fog, choking, scalding, and blotting you in, and you lay there gasping while it sweated into you, turning you scarlet. It was hellish hot and clammy, but not unpleasant…”

Aunt Sara then appears with some veniks and “in that steam heat began to birch me, very lightly at first…and then harder and harder…until I began to yelp. More steam came belching up, and she turned me over and began to work on my chest and stomach. I was fairly interested by now, for mildly painful though it was, it was distinctly stimulating”.

I will leave the rest to your imagination or you can search out the book. Flashman concludes that “the Russians have some excellent institutions” and that Sara was “undoubtedly my favourite aunt”.

There is no bad time to visit the banya – you can go alone or with friends, you can celebrate, commiserate or meditate there. I moved to Moscow in 1999 and by this time I was generally using the banya to recover from the night before. I usually visited Kransopresnenskaya banya which was most famous for an incident in 1994 when a notorious Georgian gangster was shot by a sniper as he walked out onto the street. S Legkym Parom indeed!

Wherever I travelled for work in Russia or nearby, I would sample the local banya, from small shacks in the countryside to grand urban complexes like Sanduny in Moscow or Arasan in Almaty. I also began to think about opening somewhere back in the UK and, when I moved to London in my 30’s, I researched the contemporary bathhouse scene. There wasn’t much to get excited about. My favourite was probably the Porchester in Queensway had a glorious kidney shaped pool and beautiful tiled rooms with a range of temperatures ranging from the coolest (Frigidarium) to the hottest (Laconicum), but none of them offered the same rejuvenating experience as banyas in Russia.

The Bath Houses of London

At the same time, I learned that London had a rich history of bath houses. These included an opulent Oriental bathhouse opened in 1862 on Jermyn Street by a former British diplomat in Constantinople and a Russian banya on Brick Lane called Russian Vapour Baths, set up by emigree jews who had fled the pogroms of the Tsarist empire for East London.  There were also numerous “bath houses” or laundries where people could go to literally take a bath and do some washing. Look carefully around the city and you will see examples like this one in Kentish Town.

The Bath House – Banya London opened in 2019 and we hope it is a worthy addition to that history.

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