Ironmonger Row Baths – a London ‘steam up’
Keeley and I had arrived at Ironmonger Row Baths on a fresh-feeling Saturday lunch time, our swimming kit tucked neatly into a tote bag. After a few cold water swims in the days previous, I thought it might be a good idea to get a “steam up”, as Roger says. And so we stepped into the revamped Turkish baths, cash at the ready. Only to be told that today’s session was full.
This wasn’t the basic, come one, come all spa that Roger depicts in Waterlog. Ironmonger Row has just undergone a massive £16.5 million redevelopment – a smart new entrance, fancy spa and an additional swimming pool are just part of this slick new leisure centre. Owned by the same company as Marshall Street Baths, it’s hard not to feel that despite this overhaul, the place has lost something of its soul with all the changes.
A week later, after a fairly tortuous booking process and having parted with £25 each, we finally got to experience the Turkish baths. There’s no denying that they’re impressive. The two steam rooms were brilliantly cloudy, a relaxing haven, maintaining the chatty vibe which Roger describes so evocatively.
Likewise, the caldarium is a beautifully designed, hidden bunker, ideal for escaping the strains of the city which thrums above. The icy plunge is still here, just as it was in Roger’s time. An ice tap and freezing monsoon shower are skin-tingling additions.
Coming at Ironmonger Row Baths without being aware of its history, as both a meeting place and a vital laundry for local people following its building in 1931 and extension in 1938, it’s very easy to love. Deeply relaxing, it’s the ideal spot for getting over the icy swims of weeks gone by.
But, knowing a little of its past, I’m drawn to one particular line in Roger’s passages about the baths. “Most of the people who come to Ironmonger Row do so regularly, simply because, for a few pounds, the experience gives them an enormous amount of pleasure,” he wrote. “They are what Josie in Steaming [a play by Nell Dunn inspired by Ironmonger Row] calls ‘the ordinary men and women who have been coming to the baths all their lives for a swim or a laundry…’”
I’m not sure ‘ordinary men and women’ would be too keen to stump up the non-members £25 fee, or even the £8.75 members must pay to gain access. The municipal, community atmosphere seems to have been sacrificed, much like it has across town at Marshall Street.
I do leave Ironmonger Row ‘walking on air’, as Roger says. But there’s a nagging doubt that this expensive redesign has gone against the founding principles of this stunning old East London institution.