Bath Time: Faded grandeur, a few hours' relaxation and the chance to pick up delicious gossip. Esther Oxford samples the pleasures of Turkish baths for women

When Patricia Forte wants a bath she travels seven miles to have one. She is usually the first to arrive. 'I'm here, she says, poking her head round the scrub-lady's door. Then: 'I'll just undress.

Minutes later the curtain across the mahogany cubicle is pulled back and a nimble white foot steps delicately on to the carpet. Mrs Forte pauses, choosing which bed will be hers for the day. Then she plumps her cosmetics bag down on a coffee table and prepares herself for a day's primping.

'Tea and toast? asks the scrub-lady, smiling.

'Not yet, Sal. I'll have one after my steam.

Mrs Forte, 69, is a regular client at the Turkish baths at Ironmonger Row, near the City. Every Wednesday she pays a reduced price of pounds 4.70 to become part of the bath-house culture for the day.

She looks forward to it. She says the 'treatment is good for her body and mind. She likes the atmosphere too: the sound of sleeping women, towels thrown casually across torsos, the laughter and gossip drifting from the smoke room, the stillness of the bodies arranged about the hot room.

'This is the only place where I can stop pleasing others and just please myself, she says, stroking her legs. 'I can manicure my fingernails and pluck my eyebrows to my heart's content.

A retired beauty therapist, Mrs Forte has been going to the baths for 11 years. She is fantastically attractive, with smooth skin and a well-toned, fine-featured face. The traditional Turkish bath treatment (hot steam room, cold plunge pool, a goat-hair mitten rub down and relaxation in a rest chamber) are essential for staying young, she believes. The combination tones muscles, cleanses the skin and invigorates the mind.

She is one of about 80 regulars who bathe at Ironmonger Row every week. Around 200 more drop in occasionally, particularly during the winter months. Old or unemployed women make up the clientele during daytime hours. From late afternoon until early evening City workers arrive.

'You hear all kinds of things when people start chatting here, Mrs Forte confides, happy to have a listener. 'The husbands, a good buy in Marks & Spencer, the latest bit-on-the-side, the planned holiday, health and beauty problems. All the details too.

Most of London's Turkish baths were built in the Thirties. Public baths were a necessity then - many local residents did not have private bathrooms. The culture that has since evolved is based loosely on the Romans', with bathing attendants and a communal cool room where patrons can sit and chat. The rambunctious behaviour usually associated with the Romans is not encouraged though. 'I would be scared stiff if a lesbian approached me, Mrs Forte shudders.

She tried out a number of Turkish baths around London before settling for Ironmonger Row. Some of the baths (and clientele) elsewhere are 'filthy. The Porchester Spa - known as the creme de la creme of London's Turkish baths - is, she claims, one of the worst. 'The place is full of Arab women spitting, she hisses in an exaggerated whisper.

Prices at the Porchester are also higher: pounds 15.40 for access to the baths (scrub-down not included) and pounds 17 for a half-hour massage.

Antonia Charles, 32, is a secretary and has been a regular at the Porchester Spa for three years. She loves the splendour of the art deco reception area - marble walls, pillars and golden ceilings. It is not too expensive if one buys a membership card, she says. Anyway, she simply has to go there. Unless she has a Turkish bath regularly she gets depressed and her skin feels rough.

Apart from the art deco magnificence, the Porchester also boasts a 'modern whirlpool spa bath and a Finn log sauna. Unfortunately the (electric) sauna was not working the day I visited; the temperature was a cool 36C. The whirlpool did not look inviting either. Bits and bobs floated on the surface and looked like a breeding ground for germs.

The remainder of the beautiful but old facilities appear hopelessly run down. The 'lowered ceilings in the basement dripped muck incessantly; few of the showers worked, the mahogany door frames around the steam room have been left to rot and the walls are one mass of curling, peeling paint. Thumb-nail-sized cockroaches scuttle across the floors.

This decline in standards is in part due to the recession. The renaissance of the late Eighties, when the baths became a fashionable place for Londoners to be seen, has passed. Ironmonger Row has also seen its attendance rate drop by at least 50 per cent over the past five years, according to Sally, the scrub-down lady. But standards have not been allowed to fall.

Sally, 59, has worked at Ironmonger Row for 16 years. Every Monday morning she scrubs the steam room, hot rooms, showers, plunge pool, and shampoo area. She likes the place to shine. On Monday afternoon, Wednesday, Thursday and alternate Sundays she dons her swimsuit and scrubs down womens' bodies. Up to 30 or 40 usually attend in a day.

The 'shampoo lasts about five minutes. It involves having a hose-down, followed by a scrub with a flannel, then a rub with olive-oil soap and a final rinse.

Everyone is asked to have a shower when they first come through. 'If a woman smells particularly bad I'll say: 'There is some soap there love', says Sally. She spends the same amount of time on 'dirty ladies' as clean ladies ('I don't see why I should spend more time scrubbing ladies who can't be bothered to wash themselves) but young bodies get a touch more pampering than old ones ('there is nothing enjoyable about tackling a huge, wrinkly body).

Occasionally Sally refuses to do a shampoo. 'I had one woman come in with two huge, raw boils on her back. I refused to touch her. I went straight to the management upstairs and said: 'I'll not go near that woman'. The lady was most annoyed.

The 'foreign ones cause the most problems. There is a 'No spitting sign to remind people that 'what is acceptable in your country is not acceptable in ours. They need reminding, says Sally.

Some customers try to shave their legs or, worse still, their 'pubes. They are told firmly but politely to do that grooming in their own bathroom.

Sally plans to retire next year. Not to be with her family - her marriage lasted three years and she hasn't seen her daughter for 16 years - but because she is tired and has seen and heard enough.

She remembers Ironmonger Row from when she was a little girl. There was an air of grandeur about it then - parquet floors and high-laced ceilings - it had dignity. Now the floor is carpeted, the ceiling is lowered and 'there are bloody leaks everywhere.

The women have changed too. In those days the ladies respected the fact that 'a Quiet Room means a quiet room. The clientele were mostly old; they kept the young ones in order. Nowadays the girls are young. Some are bolshy and over-confident; they shout and laugh wherever they please. Some, confides Sally, could do with a towel wrapped round them and others would do well to restrain their feelings until they are in the privacy of their own home (that day there were two Spanish 'sisters who couldn't stop embracing).

Sally doesn't know if the management intends to replace her when she goes. Having a 'scrubber is a bit of a luxury nowadays. Whatever happens, she has heard enough amusing tales and strange conversations over the past 43 years. But secrets are safe with her, she says reassuringly, calling 'Hi sweetie to an elderly woman passing by. Discretion is assumed in the bath house.

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The number of GP practices with 10 or more doctors has grown by 75 per cent
science
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Arts and Entertainment
John Hurt will voice Prince Bolkonsky in Radio 4's War and Peace
radioRadio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

    Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

    Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game