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 - Life and Style - The Independent

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
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
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

    Project Officer (HMP Brixton Mentoring Project)

    £24,000 per annum pro rata (21 hours per week): Belong: Work as part of a cutt...

    Open Day for work in Education

    £83 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Are you looking for work in Ed...

    History Teacher

    £110 - £160 per day + Mileage & Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: Required i...

    Nursery Nurse

    £7 - £8 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Nursery Nurse jobs in South Glouc...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week