The Mancunion

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The case for the second coming of steam in Britain

Matt Wynne isn’t talking about trains: a mass building programme of public steam rooms across the country is one way to tackle social isolation, increases in mental health illness, and could forge a new sense of community ethos


I’m sat in the cramped steam room at Moss Side Leisure Centre. This is where I come a few times a week to relax, to literally let off some steam. 20-30 minutes at a time, with a couple of splashes of Olbas oil on my chest, I come out every time feeling like a new man, good for the mind, soul, and conscience.

It helps improve my breathing, clears my nasal passage and the hydrating qualities have reduced the severity of rosacea a facial condition that has haunted me since my teenage years. I also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) too when the short winter days come round and it helps knock that for six too.

Let’s be honest — steam rooms haven’t come from a Christmas special episode of Dragon’s Den. They have been with us as long as we have had civilisation, albeit in different forms across the world. It is a bathing ritual that has been historically practised from Turkey to Russia, Iceland, and even by Native Americans.

The steam room really found its place in the world during the height of the great Roman Empire. Ancient Roman baths served many community and social functions within Roman society. Everyone in Rome used Roman public baths, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

The Turkish Steam Bath, or Hammam, serves as a social gathering place and ritual cleansing site, as well as an architectural structure. It is a cultural fusion of community, design and the art of relaxation. In a Turkish bath, one relaxes in a warm room and moves to a hotter room, before they conclude the ritual with a splash of cold water.

There are five million inhabitants and over three million saunas and steam rooms in Finland – an average of one per household For Finnish people the sauna is a place to relax with friends and family, and a place for physical and mental relaxation as well. Finns think of saunas not as a luxury, but as a necessity.

A sit in the Finnish steam room, involves the room being typically warmed to 80–110 °C. Water is thrown on the hot stones topping the ‘kiuas’ – a special stove used to warm up the sauna. This produces great amounts of wet steam, known as löyly, increasing the moisture and the heat within the sauna. Only the word ‘löyly’ is used for this particular type of steam in its original sense it signifies ‘spirit, breath, and soul’.

Steam rooms in my eyes need to be compulsory in every neighbourhood in the country, they provide untold health benefits and a place to socialise and meet new people. When you’re in there – everything goes out the window, all your prejudices and inner bitterness you have built up throughout the day. It’s like flushing your mind clean in my humblest opinion.

An incredible type of social psychology is that there are no hierarchies I always feel when I’m in a steam room, a form of egalitarianism plays out every time — unlike the vanity show that is the contemporary gym showroom. They could provide an incredible untold form of community ethos in the places we live and work.  I’m convinced more talk about politics goes on in Manchester’s leisure centre steam rooms than in our blessed Town Hall.

In Britain today, social isolation and the extent of mental health issues mean solutions need to be sought that go beyond prescribing anti-depressants, smoking pot, or turning to the drink as a way of blanking it all out.

What good an investment of private and public funding on a programme of public, ease of access steam rooms could achieve! Preventing and possibly curing illnesses across the board. Yes, I know we have steam rooms in private gyms and selected public swimming baths across the region, but they are tiny and few and far between and the ones that do exist outprice many.

It is nearly impossible to imagine at present as we are in an age of austerity, where in England in 2017 we are lucky if we’ve still got a library going rather than dreaming of public steam baths that would form an integrated part of a given community. I’m not going to lie. It would take a massive cultural shift. How would it be policed? Can we be trusted in England? Would women feel safe in them alone?

My dream is one way of breaking the monotony of life and alleviating the dark days and terrible weather we endure on this island for most of the year. I don’t think you’ll get too many disagreeing with me. All it takes is a little hot water, some copper piping, and a strong political will. A dream; so be it. Bring on the second coming of steam.