Newcastle’s Best Kept Secret
As Winter draws in, Jennifer Thomson takes a trip to the Turkish Baths in Newcastle and escapes the cold for an evening.
“THE BRITISH SKY is obscured by constant rain and cloud.” So wrote the Roman historian Tacitus of our sun-deprived isle nearly 2000 years ago.
If, like me, you think the Roman soldiers stationed here had the right idea when they decided to construct cosy bathhouses then read on.
Having grown up near Newcastle I had always vaguely known about the Turkish Bath at Newcastle City Pool but never seemed to get around to paying it a visit.
Yet over the summer I tried out a traditional hammam in Morocco, where the hot rooms were a great place to relax and rejuvenate.
Come autumn and returning to a region not exactly renowned for its balmy weather I was determined to try out my local version to escape the cold spell. So it was with glee that I boarded a train one Tuesday evening to the place billed as “Newcastle’s best-kept secret.”
Newcastle Turkish Bath itself dates from the 1920s and it is one of only four original Turkish Baths still actively used in the country.
At the beginning of the twentieth century there were hundreds, capable even of inspiring bad poetry. In his An Ode to the Turkish Bath, one Edward Haughton wrote that: ‘Soon in each town will stately piles appear/To show the hand of progress has been there’.
That hand of progress is much in evidence at the Newcastle Turkish Bath today. Forget cold showers, grubby changing rooms and cramped lockers. The changing rooms hark back to another time, being lined with luxurious wooden cubicles decorated with lampshades and daybeds where you leave your belongings before sampling the hot rooms, steam room, Jacuzzi and cooling area.
Fear not – the “cooling room” is really an extension of the entrance and features potted palms and cushioned wicker furniture.
On the night I go, a real mix of locals, students and professionals have turned out to enjoy the bath, and there is no fussy etiquette about how long to stay in each room.
You pretty much go in and intersperse hot with cool as you please – the Jacuzzi is cooler than the steam room, so I’m sure that counts – until you’ve forgotten about that essay deadline or the staff tell you its closing time.
Glossy fashion magazines are left lying around by the staff – I assume they provide similar thought-provoking literature for the lads – but as you loll about you can smugly remind yourself that you are also boosting your general well-being through the exposure to dry heat and moisture.
Turkish Baths are reputed to provide a range of health benefits – devotees say it increases blood circulation to the skin, opens pores to release dirt, relaxes muscles and induces general well-being. Victorian fans also believed they cured syphilis and, ahem, hang-overs.
Wishful thinking perhaps, but you would still be hard-pressed to find a better way to avoid the wintry cold for an ßevening.
Of course, you can visit a basic sauna almost anywhere in the world, but the Victorian Turkish Bath deserves a special place in British history.
It was one David Urquhart, serving at the British Embassy in Constantinople, who first brought the Turkish Bath to wider attention back home. Baths were constructed first in Ireland and later Manchester in the 1850s, the first Turkish baths intended for public use since Roman times.
A craze had begun, continuing with the establishment of a Turkish Bath Movement. The Victorians, not being inclined to treat their relaxation and leisure activities lightly, could even read such snappily-titled works such as Edward Haughton’s Facts and Fallacies of the Turkish Bath Question, Or, What Kind of Baths Should We Have?
In actual fact, there is actually nothing specifically Turkish about Turkish baths. Early fans researching designs drew inspiration from Roman ruins as much as the places described by Urquhart.
Turkish Baths thus ended up having rather more in common with a Roman Bath than a Turkish one, and they became known on Continental Europe simply as Roman-Irish Baths – so if you’ve ever visited a reconstruction of a Roman bathhouse and wondered how an empty stone room without the re-constructed heating system could ever seem appealing, then this is the place to visit to see what was great about them.
Except the Roman bathhouses probably didn’t have deckchairs in them, or the Jacuzzi.
All in all the Turkish Baths are a great place to unwind and simply escape from the Durham bubble for a few hours.
Your sense of well-being might be chilled as mine was by the sheet of rain which smacked me in the face as I stepped out into freezing Newcastle once more. But only just.