It might be known by many as England’s most famous boxing venue, but tucked away in the bowels of York Hall you will find one of London’s last remaining traditional Turkish baths and spa. Open to men and women, Spa Experience at York Hall is a place to heat up in a Hammam in winter or cool down in a plunge pool in summer.
Built in the 1920s and opened to the public in 1929, York Hall is one of the nation’s best-known boxing venues and leisure centres. It was the third in a succession of public baths built in Bethnal Green in the early 20th century.
When it was opened in 1929, the baths incorporated first and second class swimming pools (the first class pool had a removable floor allowing for its conversion into a public hall), slipper baths, Turkish and Russian baths and public laundry facilities.
Public baths were popular in the Victorian era, especially in the poor and overcrowded East End. There was a push by the government and local authorities to provide facilities, including baths and parks for the public that no facilities or space of their own.
After 1950, the first class pool fell into disuse, and in the 1960s, York hall became increasingly important as a boxing venue. It was not uncommon for disused swimming pools in the East End to be used for boxing, and similar events took place in the old baths in Haggerston and Hoxton.
After WWII the numbers of disused baths declined, and public boxing bouts increasingly took place at York Hall. Several future world champions, including John Stracey, Charlie Magri, Maurice Hope and Nigel Benn fought there early in their careers, and the hall – though a fraction the size of modern international venues – is now widely referred to as the ‘home’ of British boxing.
Threatened with closure in 2003, York Hall was renovated once more in 2005, with the basement area converted into a health spa. The renovation cost $4.2 million, with another £250,000 required almost immediately after.
Spa Experience at York Hall
Today, the leisure centre and spa at York Hall are run by Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) on behalf of Tower Hamlets Council.
GLL is a social enterprise that runs leisure centres and spas across the country. Their spas are run under the brand name, Spa Experience. Spa Experience at York Hall is just one of these. There are other locations around the country, including five others in London, one in Northern Ireland and one in Somerset.
Together, GLL and Tower Hamlets Council want to create and maintain a facility that is accessible and affordable for everyone. The price list reflects this – to use the bath facilities for three hours without a treatment will set you back around £20 and if you are a student, senior citizen, or local resident, the cost will be even less.
Although Tower Hamlets Council do not fund Spa Experience at York Hall, they work with GLL to make sure that the spa is run in the interest of the community.n
Although the spa has been modernised, some of the original features still remain. In the bathing rooms, some of the pillars and tilework are from the original build, and the spa still features a hammam room, which is an integral feature in Turkish baths. ‘The spa is built around the original features’ explains Tanya Bruno, spa manager. ‘We did our best to ensure that some of the tradition remains.’
In some of the other GLL locations such as Wimbledon, the redesign called for a totally modern gym but York Hall is a special piece of East End heritage, and the spa development was made to reflect that. There is no jacuzzi in the spa, but a plunge pool and a bucket shower, both of which are important parts of the tradition of Turkish baths.
On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, there are women-only sessions in the baths, allowing women to feel comfortable using the facilities, and increasing accessibility.
Treatments are not extortionate either – a black soap body scrub or shea butter massage on a table made from a marble slab (traditional to a hammam) start at £15. Although the spa predominantly uses English brand Elemis for their products, the scrub and butter come from French brand La Sultane De Saba and reflect the natural products used in traditional Turkish baths.
People come from far and wide to visit the York Hall Spa – from tourists staying at the Bethnal Green Town Hall Hotel to locals who have lived in the East End their whole lives. The nearest spa with the same facilities is the GLL spa in the Ironmonger’s Baths in Old Street.
The Spa Experience at York Hall is used for birthdays and hen parties, and group packages work out cheaply, with a treatment and use of the baths starting from just £50 per head. The spa also plays host to regular celebrity visitors. In the past, singer Katy B and a variety of the Eastenders actors have come in to be painted, buffed, scrubbed and waxed.
On top of the bathing facilities, the spa has five treatment rooms, one of which is a double. In the future, Bruno says, there are plans to expand the size of the spa, building more treatment rooms and employing more than the already impressive 16 members of staff.
Once you have enjoyed the relaxing thermal bath waters, you can be transported into a zen-like state by the competent hands of a beauty therapist. We recommend the Superfood facial – a facial bursting with superfoods and minerals to leave your skin feeling plump and refreshed. Yum. 25 minutes costs £35.
Visit the York Hall Spa at 5 Old Ford Rd, London E2 9PJ between 11am and 8pm Monday to Friday and 9am to 7pm at the weekend.
To book a treatment or a session at the York Hall Turkish Baths visit the Spa Experience website.
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