20 February 2017 | 10 °C

Inside London's Most Beautiful Turkish Bath

Inside London's Most Beautiful Turkish Bath

It started with a case of neuralgia. In July 1860, mechanic Roger Evans built himself a Turkish bath at his house off the Edgware Road, to steam away the stabbing pain. Charging a shilling entry to his fellow workers, he soon realised he was onto something. The London bathhouse was reborn.

The cooling area, presided over by a bathing beauty.

Snatching up the baton dropped long ago by the Romans, Londoners were once again gently cooking and cooling themselves, in eventually more than 100 Turkish baths across the capital.

Yet, another century on — with health vastly improved, indoor bathrooms becoming common, and havoc played out by the Blitz — the plug was pulled on bathhouses again. So where is there to go in 2016?

London's Turkish baths have had a renaissance of late: leisure centres like Ironmonger Row and York Hall have scrubbed up and rebranded. Though worth the visit, maybe they've been scrubbed up a little too zealously.

Porchester Spa is different. Opened in 1925 as the Paddington Central Baths, this palace of water combines the ostentatious architecture of the time (monogrammed gates and bearded busts greet you outside), with a spit and sawdust effect that's come from 90-odd years of good use.

You enter into the tiled cooling area, with its speckled-tile walls and dark brown recliners. A nude, emerald swimming goddess stands on one foot, a glowing bulb balanced on her palm. Varnished wooden signs introduce you to the frigidarium, and ask for 'Quiet Please'.   

It's respected: the only sound here is the odd crash from the plunge pool, the clink of a locker or the occasional turning of a newspaper.

"Some people have been coming here since before I was born," says Ryan, who works at the spa, explaining that many of the clientele arrive early and settle in for the day.

Retirees are perhaps the spa's bread and butter during the week, but myriad others call in after a stressful day in the office, or even on their lunch break.

From the cooling area, you can head through a shabby corridor, and end up at a 30-metre pool with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The balconies are theatrical, the rose-shaped windows could belong in a church. The pockmarked tiles suggest a pool well used, and hint at more of the shabby-chic to come.

Because it's in the bowels of the spa, you get the full-on Porchester effect. Step down past the swirl-shaped plunge pool, through the kind of plastic flaps that usually lead to a supermarket cold store, and into a steamy labyrinth of chipped tiles, dripping pipes, variously humid and tepid rooms, and unfettered conversation.

Today, it's like being in a working men's/gentlemen's club* hovering somewhere in a hot cloud. You can sit in one of the steam rooms for hours and listen to the punters chit-chat, reel off one story after the next. (Although remember to go for a cold shower every now and again, otherwise end up looking like a boil-in-the-bag human.)

One bloke is explaining how a mate said he could get him free tickets for the Manic Street Preachers ("I said 'Fuck off! I'd rather go and see the Spice Girls!'"), realising only too late he was in the presence of the band's manager.

For those who feel the need to be pummeled, there are treatments at an extra cost. Many, though, prefer to while away their time chewing the fat, lathering themselves up with shampoo and taking the occasional slurp of water from a hose. The simple pleasures in life.

We got this far, then our camera refused to work.

And long may that be the case: Porchester Spa has just been acquired by Everyone Active — the brand currently snapping up leisure centres across London — and it's already set to work on a £1.5 refurb of the pool and gym. The spa area is due a spruce-up sometime next year, and we're told the intention is to keep the history and charm of the place intact.

While Porchester could probably do with a lick of paint here, a few fresh tiles there, and a swear jar or two, let's pray no-one goes overboard on what remains surely London's most beautiful bathhouse.

Porchester Spa is open 10am-10pm Monday-Saturday and 10am-4pm Sunday. £28 non members; £15.50 resident card holders; £9.05 concession card holders. *Days are men-only and women-only, with a mixed session every Sunday. Treatments are available at extra cost.

A swim in the pool costs less.

Last Updated 05 October 2016