Harrogate may be better known today for Betty's tea rooms or as a conference venue, but it deserves to be famous for its Turkish baths alone, one of the few relics of its heyday as a spa town. Designed by the architects Baggallay and Bristowe, the lavish baths cost the staggering sum of pounds 118,000. Yet there is no clue from the street of the exotic interior behind the solid late-Victorian facade. The moment you step over the threshold from the rather ordinary reception area into the Turkish baths themselves, the outside world seems as remote as the moon.
You come to the rest-room first, and it sets the tone of the place. It is long and lofty, articulated by a series of Islamic-style arches resting on elaborately decorated columns. Slatted reclining chairs with white covers line the walls on either side. The view of the plunge pool at one end is framed by a wooden screen adorned with Turkish crescents and surmounted by a clock. Crescents also decorate the carved surround of the central cupola. Nothing but the unfortunate addition of potted plants in white plastic containers seems to have changed since the day the baths were opened by the Duke of Cambridge in 1897.
The procedure - and etiquette - here is fairly straightforward. After undressing in a mahogany cubicle hung with a red plush curtain, a shower is de rigueur. Bashful ladies wear swimming costumes, but to appreciate the experience fully you really need to be naked. If you are able to book ahead, I recommend beginning with a massage before embarking on the rituals of a Turkish bath proper.
A shower is followed by 15 to 20 minutes in the steam. The high humidity infused with eucalyptus oil gently cleans the skin and eases tense muscles. The walls of the steam-room are glazed brickwork and it is lined with splendid marble seats which slowly reveal their glory as your eyes become accustomed to the water vapour.
The next stage is a bracing dip in the plunge pool. It is perishingly cold, but if you are brave enough, swim a couple of lengths (about eight breast strokes). The tingling sensation is marvellously invigorating.
You then work your way up through the three hot-rooms (each at a different temperature), taking icy plunges whenever it suits. All the hot-rooms are lined with vibrantly glazed brickwork and have generous marble slabs on which to lie. There is a powerful sensation of calm and timelessness here. All is still and quiet save for the odd shriek as a fellow bather descends into the plunge pool. Instinctively you talk in hushed tones - and it would be unthinkable to roar with laughter.Finally, you spend at least 20 minutes cooling down in the glorious rest-room.
After the recommended two-and-a-half hours in the Baths I emerged feeling blissfully relaxed. There was just time to pop into Betty's nearby for a delicious hot chocolate before I caught the train home.
The Turkish Sauna Suite, Royal Baths Assembly Rooms, Crescent Road, Harrogate, Yorkshire (01423 562498). Opening times are many and varied. There are ladies', men's and mixed sessions. Admission pounds 7.50. Other services offered include massage, reflexology, leg waxing and facials.