How The UK Got Hooked On Heat
It’s a chilly morning in Walpole Bay, Kent, and I’m waist deep in the sea. Unable to stand it any longer, I wade out and sprint across the sandy beach, where – joy! – a wooden sauna is perched on huge rusty wheels. Modelled on a Victorian bathing machine (appropriately enough, as we’re in Margate, one of the UK’s original seaside resorts) this free community sauna is the baby of Dom Bridges, the founder of local skincare brand Haeckels. “I don’t see it as an elitist pastime,” he tells me. “It’s important to provide healthy spaces to congregate, to build community while also focusing on our mental and psychological health. It shouldn’t be something you have to pay for.”
Locals agree. Volunteer Rosalind Nelson, who opens up every Sunday, says: “Everyone is always in a brilliant mood, because they’ve just swum, so they’re at their best mentally and physically, and they get to look at this wonderful view and warm up.” One user, Carol, tells me that she’s had breast cancer twice and says it’s helped her recovery; another local, Tindara, says: “It just clears your mind completely.”
Although we think of modern-day sauna culture as Scandinavian, it’s actually an ancient British practice, with the oldest archaeological evidence found near Stonehenge, as well as a bronze age sauna on Westray, Orkney. But in Britain, saunas have often been seen as naff add-ons to resorts or leisure centres.
This Summer’s Festivals
Now that’s changing. In the last two years, “at least 50 ‘new wave’ UK saunas are either already up and running or being built, with many more in various stages of planning”, says the British Sauna Society founder Mika Meskanen. This summer’s festivals are setting up wellness areas with saunas, while author Caitlin Moran called the sauna “the new pub”.
“It’s a massive movement,” says Heartwood Saunas’ founder Olly Davey, whose construction studio is flat out with commissions. “There are not many beaches around the UK that haven’t got something planned.”
Whenever you start talking to enthusiasts, one sauna keeps coming up in conversation: Beach Box, Brighton. I travel there to meet Liz Watson, considered by some to be the “mother” of the new sauna movement. “It just makes us all so happy,” she says, beaming. “Everyone leaves with a smile on their face.” Watson co-founded Beach Box with Katie Bracher as a pop-up in 2018, part of the Brighton fringe’s Finnish season. “People loved it; we were fully booked.” For more information go to royal spa columbia