Paying in Sweat

Why does Britain have such a tepid sauna culture?

It seems odd that the UK just can’t get saunas right. After all, we’re cold, too. It’s dark here, too. We’re all bored out of our minds here just like they must be over in Iceland. So why is it that the UK can’t recreate its own ‘hygge’ or ‘lagom’ or whatever infantalising Scandinavian word for twee is trending at the moment?

Take Brighton’s Beach Box Spa, pioneers of the luxury horse trailer-style sauna. The baths consist of three quaint saunas, each cutesily named ‘Leil’, ‘Löyly’, and ‘Loonah’ in homage to their Estonian and Scandinavian inspirations. Now, I’ve been to Brighton Beach Box and I liked it. I liked the bathtubs filled with cold water, the fire pit, the relentlessness, and you know what, I liked the coconut shell bowl and the orange segment. And yet still there is a coldness to the New Age sauna that cannot necessarily be attributed to the sauna itself, but to the sauna attendees.

For an obvious example, consider the matter of nudity. I remember walking for the first time into Badehuset in Freetown Christiania, a sauna known for what most of Christiania is known for: letting you get stoned in the entrance hall. As soon as I walked in I was confronted with a man, 60-odd, lying naked on the floor face-up, thrusting his flaccid penis into the air and grunting. To my right, a naked woman was perched like a taxidermied crow on one of the higher platforms, having previously coated her entire body, hair and all, in mud. Straight ahead, one young, naked, large-nippled Danish girl massaged the neck and shoulders of another. The other sauna-­goers lazed about, oblivious. Some did yoga, some read the newspaper, a few conversed in undulating Danish tones. Nudity was not sexualised, not scandalous, barely noticed.

Meanwhile ‘Harrogate Baths’, UK – arguably one of the poshest saunas in the country and one of the only to permit nudity (though strictly for same-sex sessions) – has just announced that henceforth swimwear will be compulsory in the baths, due to a complaint of a ‘serious incident’. Why, England, why can we not have nice things?

And don’t get me wrong, I have a bone to pick with the Danish, too. I dislike their happiness, I find it distasteful. I dislike Sjælandsgadebad, with its Aryan clientele all packed into a tiny, steamy room where I, the only Jew, have snuck in accidentally like a reverse of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I recall with some distaste my time working at a sauna in Amager, wiping sweat from the benches, steam from the windows, feeding the ravenous fire. Gaggles of Danes would lurk outside while I cleaned, smiling impatiently in the sinister manner only Scandinavians so perfectly achieve, every one of them invariably both slim and muscular from subsisting on a diet of only skin-contact wine and boiled eggs. Still, you’ve got to hand it to the Scandis because they’ve got two things we Brits haven’t got, and that’s the ability to (one) relax and (two) shut up.

Take the attendees of Withington Baths, my all-time favourite sauna. These Manchester baths have only a sauna on the side, mainly functioning as a gym and swimming pool, which means that the majority of the sauna-goers are fresh out of one or the other. They are gym-guys and they are in gym-mode. They are not here for recreation, no, they are here to compete in the Withington Baths Sauna’s Unofficial Endurance Competition, where the men sit on the highest, hottest perch with their heads between their legs, seconds from passing out, refusing to be the first to leave. This is English relaxation at its finest.

The first time I went in there, Gary, who is a Withington regular, asked me if I had received the COVID vaccine, and when I answered ‘yes’, he informed me that I would probably soon get a blood clot and die. A few weeks ago everyone in the sauna sat about comparing highly gruesome conspiracy theories on the disappearance of Nicola Bulley. And yes, of course, for all I know that’s what the Danish talk about in saunas, too, it’s just that I really, really doubt it.

Still, Withington Baths has its charms. Just look at the clientele! There’s the man that always hands round a zip-lock bag of tinned pineapple and chilli flakes. There’s the man that shows me long video tours of his mansion in Saudi Arabia and invites everyone in the sauna back to his mansion in Saudi Arabia. There’s that English guy that told me, a Scot, that I should visit Dumfries and Galloway sometime. Yes, Withington Baths smells like piss whenever it’s kids’ hour at the pool. Yes, the door to the sauna gets jammed and there’s scaffolding everywhere, and there’s one guy that plays vague oriental panpipe music on his phone until it overheats and dies. But hey, you know, it could be worse. Everyone could have their cock out.

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