Interested in a taking a trip to Turkey, but don’t fancy the flight? Then think again and hotfoot it to Harrogate where you are guaranteed a Turkish experience. Harrogate’s world-famous Turkish Baths have been restored to their glittering Victorian beginnings. History of the Baths
Although Turkish Baths were common in Victorian times, only seven remain which date back to the 19th century. Three of the seven, including the one at Harrogate, are in England (the Victorian Health Suite in Carlisle and the Health Hydro in Swindon are the others). But none of them is as historically complete and in full working order as are Harrogate’s Turkish Baths. Their importance lies in their decoration, elaboration and rarity.
Turkish Baths, or ‘hammams’ as they are named in Turkey, are considered aspects of health, not just venues for external cleanliness. Before Turkey was established as a separate country, the Romans, Byzantines and nomadic peoples had their own variations of bathing rituals. These traditions combined, creating a new variation of these ancient bathing habits – the Turkish Baths.
Harrogate’s forefathers established a Turkish Baths for Harrogate in the late nineteenth century as part of the development of the spa town. Their location, in the stunning Royal Baths Assembly Rooms boasted some of the finest spa facilities available and helped to establish Harrogate’s international reputation
The Bath’s Moorish design with great Islamic arches and screens, walls of vibrant glazed brickwork, arabesque painted ceilings, and terrazzo floors (laid by the very best Italian experts) all add to its historic fantasy qualities.
Harrogate’s Turkish Baths suite is complete and almost entirely unaltered.
Richard Ellis, a self-made man, builder, and mayor of Harrogate from 1884-87 promoted Harrogate as an international-quality bathing and hydrotherapy destination with a world class centre for the baths. When Ellis died in 1895, his successor Charles Fortune (Mayor 1893-95) steered the scheme to completion. The baths were built by Baggalley and Bristowe of London at a cost of £120,000.
In 1897 the Royal Baths Assembly Rooms were opened. The official opening took place in 1897 by HRH The Duke of Cambridge. The Royal Baths were said to be the most advanced centre for hydrotherapy in the world. The Turkish Baths, within the Royal Baths, was only one of a vast number of facilities available during the Royal Baths most popular years.
Other facilities included medicinal waters’ dispensary, hydrotherapy departments, mud baths and steam rooms and a complement of consulting doctors. What may seem like a bizarre range of treatments today – including the likes of ‘Plombiere’ douche, Harrogate Hot Water and Galvanism – were household names. A Turkish Bath cost three shillings and a massage two shillings. Discover the history at the Royal Pump Room Museum.
WWI brought social change and rich visitors to Harrogate declined, but middle income visitors increased. In 1969 modern treatments in the filed of medicine and technology forced the decline of the spa and closure of the treatment centre. The Turkish Baths remained open for leisure purposes.
Members of every European royal family have visited Harrogate to take the waters. Princess Alix Hesse and her sister, Princess Victoria of Battenburg, were regular visitors and amused themselves by racing their bath chairs through the streets of Harrogate.
The Turkish Baths were used for films, including Agatha, detailing her mysterious disappearance and discovery in Harrogate. They were also used for many TV productions and photo shoots and even once for a beer advert.
The baths continued to decline after WWI but in the early 21st century, Scottish Life partnered with the Harrogate Council to redevelop the Royal Baths building. The redevelopment spa facilities include a new entrance, new reception area, five ground floor and two first floor treatment rooms, a spa pool, a covered atrium linking the Turkish Baths and the new treatment rooms, a winter lounge and café area. Extended beauty treatments including complementary therapies, dry flotation, reflexology and others were added.
The Baths are mostly intact, and very little alteration has taken place over the years. The nature of the material used – hard, bright coloured glazed bricks; mosaic floors and fine polished hardwoods – mean the interior was always intended to look new, fresh and bright.
Lesley Durbin, Head Conservator with the Jackfield Museum, who led a team of four on the restoration of the glazed bricks, was amazed that just 1% needed replacing. Lesley believes Harrogate’s Turkish Baths are the most splendid and intact Victorian tiled rooms she has seen. All the glazed bricks in the dry areas were perfect. The major work was undertaken in the wet areas where moisture reacts with the salt in Harrogate’s water. But even here, restoration was at a minimum and the glazed bricks shine like new.
Lesley discovered that Wedgwood manufactured the tiles in the plunge pool, which was highly unusual as the firm did not make many tiles. These tiles were replaced, as they have not stood the test of time. New fully vitrified tiles were made by Shaws of Darwen in Blackburn. The conservation team, however, noted that the tiles surrounding the top of the plunge pool were actually hand made by Wedgwood. Jackfield Conservation Limited took moulds and created new tiles once again crafted by hand.
Specialist decorators W H Bonney of York researched the original decoration with the architect and restored the original as near as possible. This included hand crafting stencil templates to follow the original designs.
The scheme also included replacing modern lights, basins and WCs with ones to match the originals. One original toilet has been kept because it is listed along with the building. Modern pipe work where it runs on the surface was replaced with traditional brass pipe work.
Repairs to the mosaic floors used techniques the original Italian craftsmen used and brought them back to their glory. The only compromise is the final high gloss polished finish, which cannot be replicated because of modern-day health and safety issues. Wet shiny floors are slippery.
The Turkish Baths comprise a steam room, plunge pool, hot room chambers (Tepidarium--warm, Calidarium--hot and Laconium—hottest), frigidarium (relaxation room which isn’t cold but is for chilling out).
In the words of the famous Turkish hammams, customers will feel exhilarated, euphoric and totally relaxed after their visit.
Parliament St, Harrogate
Tel. 0 1423 556 746 (advance booking required for use)
Open: different times for ladies/men; some mixed times;
For more information go to Turkish Baths
Royal Pump Room Museum
Crown Place by Crescent and Montpellier Rds, Royal Parade, Harrogate
Tel. 0 1423 556 188
Open: Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm; on Sun from 2pm except in Aug open from noon on Sun; Nov-March, closes at 4pm
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