The last few times we’ve been up to Harrogate, the Turkish baths have been closed. They’re open again now, at the end of this long winter. Lou and I booked for the two and a half hour session at the end of the day. Why the hell not since we are here anyway?
It is so cold in the world, and we have all battled through a shit summer and a long winter. Perhaps not surprisingly we were in plentiful company as we began our journey through the different spa rooms. I’m not disappointed to see lots of people. It inhabits the place – gives it life and more personality. It’s not as big as it was. Lots of the original building has been eaten by Wetherspoons, and a Chinese Restaurant. Still, they’ve kept the most important parts.
There’s underfloor heating, and the walls are warm. Mahogany changing rooms, with bright fresh-painted mandalas and crescent moons decorating clocks. Leather recliners next to the frigidarium – the coldest room containing a long plunge pool for when you overheat. It feels old and considered, not twee. I like it here. An ancient cleansing ritual reinterpreted by Victorians but with lessons learnt and passed on from thousands of years ago.
The Romans really made sense of this form of bathing and relaxation, but the Victorians got right behind the blend of decadence and engineering. Mosaic tiles for beauty and easy washing, curved walls for water run off and safety, and all these different rooms. After the frigidarium you can shift into one of the warmer rooms, and then move back and forth as you please. They are hard, these rooms, but hot. You have your towels but you’re sitting on marble, stone, wood or just tiles. Soft seats would get pretty horrible pretty quickly. But you sit and you warm up. You can get water in little paper cones from a little brass tap. All the plumbing feels Victorian and old but in a good way. Even the loos are The Venerable Thomas Crapper. You find ways to let it wash over you. Your body gets cleaner and warmer.
We alternately cooked and cooled and cooked and cooled for ages. At the heart of the sauna is the laconicum and it’s HOT in there. At the end of the day when it felt like it was cooling off in there I checked the thermometer and it read 68°C. Off to the side is a steam room and I couldn’t take full breaths in through either my nose or mouth in there it was so hot. 68 is hot enough but that steam room was maybe even more – a blinding eucalyptus scented pressure cooker. I was in heaven, gradually cooking myself like a sausage, occasionally plunging myself into the cold water for a second just “because I think it’s good for my skin”, going back to languishing in heat. At one point Lou had everybody in the Caldarium shamelessly adopting yoga poses – legs up the wall. It’s hot and unfamiliar there, but it’s inevitably quite a social experience. You aren’t pretending the other people aren’t there – you can’t, you’re sitting in their sweat sometimes. You’re surrounded by all these different bodies of all shapes and sizes, and the people living in them are happy to pass the time with you like you’re at the bus stop. It’s an odd mix of intimacy with yourself and small-talk with others. I found time to retreat into my own head, and time to talk about the different parishes in Jersey.
Now we are cosy and sleepy, back in Harrogate. I feel so warm now – heated through to my bones. I’m about to sleep hard and well and long. A treat, the Harrogate baths. A real treat in this cold. My throat feels funny now. But I’m gonna sleep beautifully.