How London’s first wood-fired sauna and cold plunge is reinventing the centuries-old Scandi tradition in Hackney Wick.
Clutching onto each other’s hands with nervous excitement, a pair of sauna bathers prepares to descend into an ice-cold plunge barrel big enough for two.
Fresh out of the sauna, steam rises off their reddened bodies. You can almost hear their skin hiss with relief as they lower themselves into the cold water.
Fully submerged now, two white woollen hats bob above the wooden barrel and their facial expressions turn from shock and excitement to a mixture of concentration and relief as they adjust to the temperature change.
We’ve come to Hackney Wick’s Community Sauna Baths on a fresh spring evening to join the growing number of East Londoners hooked on the Scandi sauna tradition.
Finding its home on a derelict site at the back of Hackney Wick’s 1930s public bathhouse, the Community Sauna Baths opened at the beginning of 2022 becoming London’s first authentic wood-fired sauna and cold plunge.
Its seven wooden saunas, ranging from converted horse boxes to traditional Finnish styles, vary in size and temperature. Little did we know, we’ve come on ‘lava Tuesdays’ where temperatures in the hottest saunas reach more than 100 degrees Celsius.
While this might sound like a health hazard rather than a way to unwind, it is said that by rotating between the hot sauna and cold plunge, the ‘Nordic Cyle’ as it is sometimes known, you enhance the experience of both.
A cold-blooded creature, I was initially doubtful about my prospects in the cold water plunge. But when combined with the extreme heat of the sauna, the process becomes thrilling and addictive.
A cluster of whisky barrels now used for cold plunging takes centre stage in the astroturfed, open-air space, which is illuminated by strings of fairy lights as the sun goes down.
Free-standing baths and a bucket shower add to the saunas’ folksy, homespun feel, providing various ways for bathers to put Wim Hof’s cold therapy to the test.
Inside the sauna, a block of eucalyptus-scented ice placed on the hot charcoals permeates the sauna’s hot, heavy air, cocooning us in its woody scent.
Beyond the relaxation of the saunas and the thrill of the cold plunge, emerging evidence suggests that there are significant health benefits to these bathing methods which Finnish people have been practising since 700 BC.
Dripping with sweat and wearing little more than a woollen bucket hat, the absence of phones and the novelty of the experience creates a sense of community among bathers without it feeling cultish.
With some sauna goers seeking an evening of personal reflection, for others, it is a rare place to catch up with friends that doesn’t involve alcohol. And with prices starting at £7.50 for the early rising weekday customers, it’s cheaper, too.
The Community Sauna Baths’ mission is to make their saunas as authentic and accessible as possible, and it’s easy to see how they have people hooked.
With no phones or watches to hand, we’re blissfully unaware of time’s passing. Before we know it, our 90-minute session is over and we’re already planning our next trip.
With an evolving roster of weekly events, from open mic nights to parent and baby sessions and sauna storytelling, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes of this fast-growing community hub.
Personally, we have our eyes on the traditional German Aufguss sessions rumoured to involve oil-infused water and circulating rhythmic towel movements.
And if you’re serious about incorporating the new wellness trend into your weekly schedule, Finnish studies suggest four or more sessions a week to feel the long-term health benefits.
Luckily, the Community Sauna Baths have a ‘Regular’s Club’ which you can join for £20 a month, giving you 50 per cent off each sauna booking and 15 per cent off events and private hires.
In keeping with the Saunas’ rough and ready feel, the changing rooms consist of five wooden cubicles closed off with shower curtains, so if you’ve had an early morning sauna session before work, you’d better bring a bag for your wet clothes.
And to avoid giving yourself away as a first-timer, make sure to read the packing list before you go.
Though it might seem counterintuitive to wear a sauna hat, doing so moderates the heat exposure to your head and prevent your ears from getting too hot. It is also considered good sauna etiquette to bring a towel to sit on in the saunas.
And if you still don’t think you can handle the heat (or the cold, as I feared), it’s worth the short trip to Hackney Wick to find out. You might just surprise yourself.
Find out more and book your trip to the Community Sauna Baths.
For more things to do in Hackney Wick, find our food review of Lanterna pizzeria, bar & deli.
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