A handsome bearded bloke - and his brother
TURKISH BATHS - ‘HAMAMS’
The first thing to say about Turkish Baths is that they were not originally Turkish at all.
The idea of sitting around in alternately hot and cold rooms, with added swimming pools and massage, as a relaxing and cleansing therapy dates back - like so much else - to Ancient Greece.
And, also like so much else, the Romans adopted the idea and spread it round their empire. There were versions of ‘Turkish’ Baths at their forts at Wallsend, Chesters and Housesteads. We call them ‘Turkish’ because, although the Roman Empire perished early on here in the west, it survived until the 15th century in the east, with its capital at Byzantium - which became Constantinople and finally Istanbul.
So it was there - in what became the Ottoman Empire - that the concept and design of hot/damp and cold/dry bathing reached its most sophisticated and luxurious levels.
Remember, too, that the original Graeco-Roman idea spread much further than the boundaries of the Empire or even of the Mediterranean, changing emphases as it travelled. In Scandinavia - and particularly in Finland - it grew into the sauna; intensely hot and dry, then ice-cold, with the massage replaced by birch-twigs!
In Russia and eastern Europe, it developed into the hot mud-baths still extremely popular there, although there are also fully-functioning Turkish Baths in many places in Hungary.
And, because of the influence of the Ottomans, hot, steamy baths are still very common in north Africa, from Egypt to Morocco, as well as in Syria and even in India.
We call them ‘Turkish’ Baths because that’s what the men who introduced them to Britain called them - ardent Victorian turcophiles called David Urquhart and Richard Barter. They opened the first one in Ireland in 1856 and the idea took off. By 1860, Manchester and London had Turkish Bath-houses.
Their popularity was long-lived, too, outlasting the Victorian era by several decades. Newcastle’s Turkish Bath, designed in what was by then the traditional, opulent, Art Deco ‘eastern’ style, opened in the 1930s and has been popular ever since.
But not, unfortunately, popular enough these days.
The cost of maintaining and operating Turkish Baths (or ‘hamams’), and the rather ‘old-fashioned’ Victorian design of authentic ones, has resulted in their gradual demise all over the country. Britain once had over 600 of them. There are now just eight in England - in London, Birmingham, Carlisle, Doncaster, Harrogate, Northampton, Swindon and Newcastle - and two in Scotland - in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
And if Newcastle City Council gets its way, there will soon be one fewer. They intend to close our Turkish Bath at the end of March.
I have visited it twice now. On the first occasion, it was with my brother Barry, who lived in Istanbul for a few years and is probably even more of a turcophile than David Urquhart was.
Most recently, we were joined by my old sparring partner, Paul, who - I’m glad to say - was just as amazed by how wonderful it is as my brother and I were.
The cubicle passage, palm and cupola
There are palm trees and mosaics, heavy oak panelling, big comfy leather sofas, old-fashioned curtained changing cubicles (with couches and side-lights for you to read by if you want) and the walls are adorned with prints of Victorian pictures.
Inside the Bath itself, there’s a very hot steam vapour room and three ‘dry’ rooms maintained at different temperatures. There are marble massage tables, a whirlpool bath and several open showers.
A massage table and the whirlpool bath
If it sounds astonishing - well, it is. It is self-indulgence of the kind that looks over-indulgent these days. And that, I suppose, is its problem.
Although it is a cultural and architectural asset to the city, the Council - exhibiting the kind of crass philistinism not unknown amongst local authorities - will find it easy to shut it down. Tastes, they will say, have changed and they will say that not enough people use the Turkish Bath to justify the cost of running it.
For a new enthusiast like me, though, there is another side to the discussion.
Paul and I were on-air together for over 5 years, excluding the early, Saturday morning programmes we did. Throughout the Blue Bus’s career we were never invited to visit the Turkish Bath, with or without the Bus. Our producers and ourselves were not even aware of its existence. Then as now, the Council does not promote it or advertise it, even though the experience of visiting it is so jaw-dropping - and even though it is a listed building of great rarity in England.
You get the feeling, when you’re there, that the Council has deliberately allowed the hamam to fall into disrepair so as to justify its eventual closure.
Unfortunately, their ruse will work. We live in cash-strapped times and, while councils are closing day-care centres, nurseries and other essential facilities, an appeal not to shut a Turkish Bath will sound frivolous - a fact they are relying on.
Nevertheless, all three of us - my brother, Paul and I - believe that there must be a way of keeping the hamam open. It’s such a treasure and for so many reasons, that someone, somewhere must have the nous - the gumption - to think of a way of saving it. It would be a long-term tragedy for Newcastle to lose an asset of this vintage and of this quality.
If you want to know what I mean, visit it yourself. It’s part of the City Pool complex (all of which will be closing down) and a three-hour visit will only cost you about £7 - a fiver if you’re over 60. Go on - it’s worth it. Do it before it’s too late.
The hamam's resident evil spirit-------------------------------------
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