Just as sea bathing used to be a significant part of UK culture, so too did communal bathing – including sweating together. It’s fitting that just as cold water swimming has made a decisive return, so too has its opposing, more immediately comforting, force: the sauna. Claire Bracegirdle, who monitors the return of community saunas on a blog, explains the rediscovery of hot sweats in the wake of the cold plunge.
Just over a decade ago, recently arrived in the UK and reeling from the shock of leaving my home country of New Zealand, I found myself perched on the edge of a wooden pontoon overhanging a cold lake. Candlelight spilled from a small window in the sauna behind me, merging with the moonlight and lingering on the water, framing the surrounding woodland. Fragments of songs and conversations drifted into the night as I watched steam rise from my skin. I’d just emerged from the water and my body was tingling with the contrast, neither hot nor cold. Although I felt an ancestral connection to this new island, I hadn’t felt at home amongst its unfamiliar plants and trees and birdsong – until now.
In the following years, regular saunas became an essential part of my wellbeing: loud, convivial saunas in the early morning after parties; reflective, meditative saunas marking full moons; utilitarian, solo saunas that thawed me out in the middle of winter. For much of that time, saunas, especially the wilder ones — situated outside, near cold water and heated with wood — seemed like a niche pursuit in the UK, but recently they have exploded in popularity. Saunas are now dotted around much of the UK’s coastline and in many of its major cities.
Driven by my recognition of the importance of saunas to my own wellbeing, I started trying to document ‘wild’ saunas and spas at the start of 2020. Since then, I’ve visited saunas everywhere from the tip of Cornwall to the Highlands, from central London to remote spots nestled in the Welsh hills, and I’ve come away from these experiences excited about the ways that the UK’s growing sauna culture can better connect us to nature and to each other.
There’s also something powerful about reclaiming and reimagining the communal bathing traditions of the UK. Sweat bathing exists in many (if not most) of the world’s cultures, but decreased in popularity in the British Isles in the 1600s-1700s due to hygienic and moral concerns about people intimately sharing space, and a lack of firewood caused by widespread deforestation. It’s poignant, then, that the Hackney Wick Community Sauna Baths have found a home in a former bathhouse, and the design of the Haeckels Community Sauna echoes the Victorian sea-bathing machines invented in Margate, the UK’s earliest sea bathing resort.
“You’re in a small sweaty box and you just start chatting to people.” – Will, Sauna Appreciation Glasgow
It’s well known that loneliness and social isolation take a serious toll on our wellbeing, and it’s possible that saunas — in the ways they encourage connection and sharing — can help to address this. Charlie, one of the directors of the Hackney Wick Community Sauna Baths in east London, highlights sauna as providing an importance space where attendees can “socialise and meet new people without alcohol or dating.” The sauna environment is also a levelling one: Bethany, who set up the community sauna and arts initiative WARMTH, explains that the heat and the darkness of the sauna create a non-hierarchical environment which supports bonding. “The heat means that no-one can dominate a conversation because people will have to leave when they get too hot, and the darkness means that people are less conscious of body size or class.” As Charlie notes, “people are just high in saunas – you’re in an elevated mood, you’re vulnerable, you’re without clothes and your status symbols are taken away.” Gabrielle, one of the volunteers running the Haeckels Community Sauna in Margate, says these environments are “such a sure way to build a community, which is something that we’ve been losing in the UK over the last few decades.”
“In the sauna, sensation takes over.” – Bethany, WARMTH
There’s also something unique about the way saunas help us tune in to our bodies and our environment. Bethany describes the value of “guesswork” when it comes to holding an outdoor, wood-fired sauna – putting another log on if it gets too cold or opening the door if it gets too hot. In the intensity of heat and humidity, it becomes easier to focus on simple things, and to listen to your body’s needs. Researcher Emily C O’Hara describes group sweat practices as “allowing us to remove our focus from the external world due to the physiological responses that induce an altered state of consciousness.” In an era of extreme economic precarity and climate breakdown, this altered state — where things are reduced to the bare essentials — can be incredibly healing. But who is this available to?
The growth and growth of the wellness industry reflects our wider social and political context: an underfunded health system combined by widening inequalities has made wellness an individualised and increasingly unaffordable pursuit. Without a safety net to catch us, we must be responsible for our own wellbeing. And yet, we know that our wellbeing depends on our relationships: with others, with our culture and society, and with our environment. Saunas — both elemental and intimate, a world apart and the world within — have so much to offer in supporting our collective wellbeing, and the UK’s community saunas are experimenting with new ways of providing this beyond a profit-based model.
Saunas have so much to offer in supporting our collective wellbeing, and the UK’s community saunas are experimenting with new ways of providing this beyond a profit-based model.
Charlie of the Hackney Wick Community Sauna Baths says that the emphasis is on providing a service at a very low cost, recognising that the health and social benefits are most apparent when people are able to come regularly. WARMTH and the Haeckels Community Sauna have both provided free sauna which, as Gabrielle says, “means it’s accessible to everyone and people can come regularly. The same people come week to week and strike up friendships with people they might not have met otherwise.” While Sauna Appreciation Glasgow is at an early stage, Will also emphasises the importance of providing low-cost sauna experiences, as well as providing dedicated time slots to local groups such as those supporting mens’ mental health. Perhaps most excitingly, all these initiatives are trialling new approaches to running saunas as community projects, with our collective wellbeing at their core. As a small island surrounded and intersected by water with a cold climate, the UK has rediscovered one of the surest ways of feeling good: sweating it out.
Visit a community sauna: