Harrogate Turkish Baths celebrates 120 years
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 September 2017
Manager Chris Mason talks to Jo Haywood about its long-lasting appeal
We all enjoy a good soak, but 120 years? Just imagine the wrinkles.
Harrogate’s award-winning Turkish Baths first opened for business on July 23rd 1897 and is now celebrating its milestone 120th anniversary while still attracting upwards of 55,000 people every year. It was the most advanced centre for hydrotherapy in the world when it was launched as part of the Royal Baths, where visitors were able to experience myriad water-based treatments including a medicinal waters’ dispensary, mud baths and steam rooms.
During the Victorian era, wealthy folk flocked to the town to ‘take the waters’ and, perhaps, ogle members of royal families from around the world (Queen Victoria’s granddaughters were frequent visitors) who turned up, stripped off (at least a few outer layers) and dived in. But was it a Victorian lifestyle trend (like our quinoa and kale juice) or was it regarded as seriously beneficial to health?
‘I think it’s safe to say a bit of both,’ said Turkish Baths manager Chris Mason. ‘Like all the spa towns in the country, Harrogate was seen as a resort based around the spa waters, with the Royal Baths hydrotherapy centre as the most established and respected in the country, if not Europe.
‘The practice of taking the sulphur water at the nearby pump rooms was seen to have many health benefits and, as such, I imagine you could say was more of a lifestyle and health-conscious choice. But it’s a testament to the Turkish Baths, one of many different options people could partake in, that the trend turned into a substantial mainstay and that we’re still here, along with the pump rooms, 120 years later.’
While Turkish Baths were plentiful in Victorian times, today only seven original 19th century spas remain, three of which are in England. No other, however, is as historically complete as Harrogate with its original Moorish design, Islamic arches and screens, vibrant brickwork (which helps to retain the heat), elaborate painted ceilings and terrazzo floors.
It helps, of course, that Harrogate is still a very popular tourist destination and, while the reasons people visit have changed, its principal attractions remain the same: beautiful surroundings, vibrant shopping, warm Yorkshire hospitality and an abundance of heritage and history.
‘We’ve maintained our unique offer with the help of heritage grants and the support of the local authority, while some other baths have fallen in to ruin due to maintenance costs,’ Chris explained. ‘We’ve always been the jewel in Harrogate’s crown and have fought to maintain the Victorian splendour and to ensure the Turkish Baths remains as near to its original form as possible.’
That doesn’t mean, however, that the baths haven’t also moved with the time. Modern spa treatments and facilities have been added to the offer over the years so visitors can enjoy contemporary treatments alongside Turkish favourites in unique surroundings. But, at heart, it remains a very traditional experience.
‘We very much take the view that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”,’ said Chris. ‘People can still experience the unique heat rooms, the cold plunge pool, showers and steam room, and can still enjoy a journey of heating, cooling, cleansing, relaxing and a clearing the mind. It’s just that now they can also make the most of contemporary therapies too, such as reflexology and reiki, and a comprehensive range of spa treats, like bespoke facials, massage and nail treatments. We find this blend of heritage and modern allows clients to unwind, relax and leave refreshed and rejuvenated.’
Last year, the Parliament Street baths underwent a major refurbishment which included a fresh look for the reception area and health spa, a parquet floor to complement the velvet-curtained wooden cubicles in the changing rooms, and a new steam room with atmospheric mood lighting to enhance the whole relaxing and revitalising experience. So, does that mean it’s set for another 120 years now?
‘Most certainly,’ said Chris. ‘We have some really exciting plans for the future, building on the popularity and success of the Turkish Baths and developing links to our amazing heritage through new spa treatments and, potentially, our own brand of products linked to Harrogate’s spa town history. With continued hard work, we’d like to become the principal reason people visit Harrogate; becoming the essence of our wonderful spa town.’
It’s not all hard work and no play at the Turkish Baths though. Chris and his dedicated team have been known to indulge in a treatment or two themselves.
‘Like everyone else, work and family commitments limit my leisure time, but I do enjoy using the baths when time permits,’ said Chris, who tries to squeeze in a visit at least twice a month. ‘It’s wonderfully rejuvenating and really does help you to relax, refresh and feel ready to go again.
‘I have a very demanding two-and-a-half year old at home, so I have to admit I’ve indulged more than once in our Tranquillity Pro-Sleep treatment. After a 60-minutes treatment, I’m totally relaxed and leave floating on a cloud.’
If you’d like to learn more about the Turkish Baths, local historians lead guided tours at 9am every Wednesday. They last about 50 minutes and cost £3.75 per person. To book a place, call 01423 556746.