Long ago, let's say, in the 1950s and before, the gay population of London created, under unimaginable duress, a remarkably rich subculture, involving unique spaces, rituals, and languages all invisible (by necessity) to the society at large. By some accounts, all that came to an end after Stonewall, official decriminalisation, AIDS and the rest. Today, gay activities are advertised in Time Out, Will & Grace is on every morning before we leave for work, and the gay club is where you take your gaggle of girlfriends for your hen party. Of course, increased visibility, destigmatisation and normalisation of homosexuals are all good things. (The hen parties aren't. We resent you; stop it.)
But it may come as a surprise to many straight Londoners how much of a exclusive, hidden gay subculture still survives. And this too is a good thing. Some of the spaces and practices we're thinking of are straightforward holdovers from the bad old days when homos still got forcibly lobotomised — for example, having sex in parks, which "good gays" are supposed to be embarrassed about, but for which Londonist's enthusiasm is a matter of public record. Others examples are entirely modern inventions; we recently dropped the phrase "gaydar tricking" into conversation, and was then forced, awkwardly, to explain the concept.
The modern gay sauna is a little bit of both — something old and something new. Public baths, Steamrooms, "Roman" spas, and hammams have been places for men to have sex with men for centuries. But the gay saunas to be found in London today have adapted to their time. (It is also something that remains surprisingly invisible to the general population — a certain Lononista, when told that this review would be written, replied "I didn't know there were 'gay saunas' in London". There are.)
London's newest sauna is in Vauxhall, and thus is newest addition to what has been hyped for quite some time as Vauxhall's "gay village," comprising, among other establishments, South Central, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Crash, and... um... The Hoist (google it if you don't know). It is located in two railway arches, and the ostentatious entrance directly faces MI-6, making it extremely convenient if you work for MI-6.
It is the newest branch of the ever-expanding Chariots empire, with branches in Shoreditch, Limehouse, Waterloo, Streatham and Farringdon. They claim they have no further plans to expand at this time, but we wouldn't be surprised if, in the near future, there were a Chariots on every high street, next to your Prêt à Manger.
Our straight readers may wonder: what goes on in these places? Well, both more and less than you might imagine. There's a lot of walking around. Or sitting around. A lot of glancing, avoiding the glances of others, staring. No talking. (Please, no talking.) And eventually you get it on in a tiny tiny room. Or, if you prefer, in a big public room in front of leering naked men whose glances you had been avoiding. All good fun, really. And the infections you pick up can be easily treated with anitbiotics.
Our gay readers are wondering how Chariots Vauxhall stacks up next to other saunas in London. Well, the news is mixed. Since it is in railway arches, we were worried that Chariots would try to hard to emulate that other London sauna under the railway, Pleasuredrome, near Waterloo station — an establishment which has a lot going for it, but whose décor is a bit too 'Changing Rooms' for our taste, if you know what we mean. Thankfully, the interior of the new Chariots is clean and austere, without being pretentious. The lounge area is comfortable, the different rooms are well laid-out, and there's a nice mix of small and large spaces to explore. There are two steam rooms, two dry saunas, two porno-watching rooms, and a ton of private booths.
However, one problem that Chariots Vauxhall can simply not escape is its size: it is huge. This might seem to be a selling point, but in fact, for practical reasons, the size of a sauna quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns. Of course, as word of the new establishment spreads, more guys will show up, but the threshold at which the place will actually feel busy has been set unreasonably high.
Our other complaints include the lack of a whirlpool (which can be found at Pleasuredrome, which has a big one, and Chariots Shoreditch, which has two small ones and a swimming pool). (Although, yes, we don't call the whirlpool at a sauna 'sperm soup' for nothing, and we've never been completely convinced that the chlorine kills all of the human papillomavirus that we know is floating around in there, so perhaps we shouldn't complain.)
Also, Chariots Waterloo is miles ahead of most other saunas in London by means of one very simple feature: free coffee. Why can't the coffee at Chariots Vauxhall be free? We've paid £14 to get in, and now you want us to go all the way back to our lockers to get change to use in the coffee vending machines?! Honestly! The good feelings that the free coffee at the Waterloo branch creates in the customers is surely a winning proposition for Chariots in the long run.
So to summarise: Cleanliness, design, location = GOOD. Size, no whirlpool, vending machines = BAD. But, really, if it's 1am and we've just been kicked out of Duckie or Crash or South Central, where else are we going to go?
Londonist was very tempted to title this post after the example of our recent restaurant reviews, but we didn't.