Inside the wild saunas of Britain
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Home wellness is heating up. From plunge pools to Pelotons, the home spa has been undergoing a radical evolution: and the latest trend, as promoted by everyone from Jack Dorsey to Gwyneth Paltrow, is for the personal sauna. John Harris, the UK distributor of Iglucraft, has a long waiting list for his stylish traditionally crafted Estonian saunas, while Peter Mikic, one of the world’s most in-demand interior designers, says that in the past few years, he’s seen an exponential rise in demand for home saunas and infrared rooms. “Time is luxury and good health is the greatest luxury of all,” he says. “I have seen a marked increase in people, including myself, wanting to enhance that investment in their homes. As well as the ubiquitous home gym, that luxury also includes a sauna and a plunge pool.”
The popularity of saunas has gone hand in hand with the growth in interest in wild and cold-water swimming, and today’s saunas are far from the pine-clad cabins once associated with ’70s wellbeing.
Gabrielle Reason, secretary of the British Sauna Society, who holds an MA in psychology and physiology, is an enthusiastic advocate. “Analysis done by Coventry University shows that whether you are pumping it out in a gym, or sweating it out in a sauna, you will get the same cardiovascular benefits. And what is so brilliant about that is what it means for the elderly, or if you have mobility issues.” It’s also a great tool for weight loss. Although, she clarifies: “The weight loss comes from the cold plunge that is as integral a part of sauna ritual as the steam.” Among the other benefits, Reason highlights the findings of Finnish cardiologist and scientist Dr Jari Laukkanen, whose decades-long study of sauna bathing shows a direct correlation to longevity, as well as lower incidence of Alzheimer’s, depression and cardiovascular disease.
Aside from its health benefits, a sauna can be a thing of beauty, too. Emma O’Kelly, author of Sauna: The Power of Deep Heat, which will be published next month, says: “For centuries, the sauna lay at the centre of the community. It was where important rites of passage were held. The Finns called it the Poor Man’s Pharmacy; babies were born in the steam; cuppers and blood letters would treat the sick; and here was where the dead were prepared for burial. Everyone of all ages, genders and backgrounds were welcome, and they still like to say everyone is equal in the sauna. The brilliant thing about saunas is that they cover so many bases. Not only are they beautiful aesthetically, but they have social, mental and physical benefits. It’s a fun experience, it’s good for you and it doesn’t have to be expensive.”
For architect Juan D’Ornellas, the pleasure is as much in the process as in the results. His sauna is nestled next to a huge swath of bamboo high up on the bank of a tidal river on the south coast of England, putting it at the centre of the natural world. “There is something elemental about it for me, to do with nature,” he explains. A passionate surfer, he spent time in Sweden where he developed an interest in the sauna tradition as well as an architectural fascination with the country’s long tradition of building in wood. With the help of fellow surfing fan and specialist carpenter Will Gilchrist, he based his sauna on the ancient Finnish savusauna that relies on the heat generated by burning wood without a chimney. The result is a solid structure made of Douglas fir with a living roof that rests on Staddle stones (which traditionally lifted granaries above the ground). The sauna draws on all sorts of local materials: Cornish potter Chris Prindl helped build the stove using Peridotite stones that are rich in iron and magnesium (which possess a high heat capacity) from local quarries.
D’Ornellas is a fan of the intense heat and natural earthiness of his sauna where the walls have been blackened by smoke over the years. “I wait for a high tide and then I like to invite friends over and we have about three sessions of about 30 minutes in the heat, pouring water [a process called loyly] over the hot stones to create a steam just before diving into the river from the jetty. There is nothing in the world better than that feeling.” A large jug of ice-cold spring water extracted from a borehole on his property is perched on the porch to keep up hydration and at the end of a sauna the friends enjoy a meal together. “I immerse myself in the whole day,” he says. “That is an integral part of the experience for me.”
Paul and Caroline Weiland turned to Estonia-based company Iglucraft to build them a Tolkienesque sauna that sits beside a spring-fed pond in the fairytale woods set within the 60-acre estate of Belcombe Court, their Grade I-listed Georgian home in Wiltshire. The company, which has also built saunas for David Beckham and Guy Ritchie, creates around 100 traditionally made saunas each year, with prices ranging from €12,900 to €39,000 for a bespoke model. “My kids were very keen that we should have a sauna,” says film director Weiland. “I thought we would never use it, but I did as they suggested and to my happy surprise we all do. We go in there with friends and with the kids and we chat for hours. It’s like a gorgeous meeting room. We are a bit English about things and so we keep our swim things on; you don’t want to jump in the pond and have the ducks taking a peck at your bits!” Using the sauna has become a big part of weekend life, he says, “and I have recommended Iglucraft to so many people that I’ve started to get invitations for dinner with the Estonian ambassador”.
Having a sauna does not have to be exclusive or expensive. Irish-born sustainable farmer and cold-water-swimming enthusiast Sonja Dineley decided to build a rainwater pond (named Frank after her late father) at her home at the top of a chalk hill in Wiltshire. She wanted it to chime with her environmental ethos: she swims in the pond 365 days a year and the sauna “was also born from a practical good health decision”, she explains.
“My husband Perin, a farmer, suffers from a bad chest and had enjoyed the benefits of a sauna on a trip to Scandinavia. It was actually transformative for us. We are hardworking farmers and to be able to ease out our tired bodies in the sauna at the end of a long day is hugely beneficial. We built the sauna with the help of two wonderful local craftsmen and forked out about £600 for the proper sauna oven. It has become a great social place for us too. Our three children love it. I even have my local book club in there. We talk about books, sweat, then we all scream and jump into Frank!”
Former set designer and craftsman Joseph Turnbull builds bespoke cabins and saunas. He built himself a sauna outside the barn he converted into a home for his wife and new baby on the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall. “While studying fine art in college I went on an Erasmus course in Finland where I studied carpentry,” he says. “My teacher was a sauna builder and I fell in love with them. I built one for us as a project during lockdown, using Harvia for the stove and technical elements, and made a small Douglas fir cabin.” Friends came and loved the experience and it has since become a bit of a business with prices starting at £7,000. His next project is building a pond to plunge into. “The whole experience is fun, a bit like going to the pub – sociable but with a healthy aspect!” Full steam ahead.
FT Weekend Festival
FT Weekend Festival returns on Saturday September 2 at Kenwood House Gardens, London. Book your tickets to enjoy a day of debates, tastings, Q&As and more . . . Speakers include Henry Holland, Rosh Mahtani, Patrick Grant, Luke Edward Hall and many others, plus all your favourite FT writers and editors. Register now at ft.com/festival.