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)

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