It’s mid-January: you’ve forgotten your skin under woolly layers for months and lost all hope of driving the chill from your bones. The perfect time, then, to lie soaped-up on a heated marble slab, have your dead skin scrubbed off by a therapist and be left to sweat in a steam room. In other words, it’s a good week to visit Ironmonger Row Baths.
Originally opened as a wash house in 1931, the Finsbury centre recently underwent a £16.5 million restoration project, which included giving the Turkish hammam (now operated by Spa London) a lavish facelift. Its trio of hot rooms, two saunas, two steam rooms and an ice-cold plunge pool now feel incongruously luxurious given the cost of a three-hour session (from £8.75), and the spa’s beauty treatments are absurdly affordable.
The chasm between palatial looks and leisure-centre prices continues throughout. A state-of-the-art gym has been installed (we love the spinning bikes with an on-demand DVD tutorial), and the pool has been spruced up: apparently 200 man-hours were spent sanding down and varnishing its 1930s wooden gallery – and it shows.
What’s been preserved in spite of the primping, however, is a sense of the venue’s place in local history. When Ironmonger Row Baths opened, little more than 4 percent of Islington locals had access to their own tub. Some 80 bathing cubicles gave them a chance to have a regular scrub, and a community laundry room provided space for washing and gossip. There’s only one bath left, but the laundry was buzzing on our visit, full of nattering tea-drinkers waiting for the spanking new machines to do their business.
1 Norman St, EC1V 3AA. 020 3642 5520, www.better.org.uk