Britain is rediscovering its sauna heritage — with the help of Estonian technology
We went on a Great British sauna tour to experience it for ourselves.
You might not think of Britain as a sauna nation. Yet there’s been a surge in sauna building here over the past few years to meet rising demand — and Estonian design and technology is at the heart of it, like here below at a luxury sauna workshop at the top of a Welsh mountain.
This “Second Coming of Steam” — as the recently created British Sauna Society calls it — is no longer confined to gyms and spas.
Those were the only places that Brits were previously used to encountering saunas, which were usually small, stuffy, and slightly suffocating rooms next to the pool, often poorly designed and devoid of authentic traditions. Many don’t even allow water to be poured on the stones, a central tenet of the sauna tradition.
We’re working to change that at Estonian Saunas by investing in quality sauna design and technology in Estonia, showcasing it our own saunas, and exporting it around the world – especially to the UK, which has been our biggest growth market since we got started. Well, it helps that we’re a British-Estonian family business too.
And our most popular export over recent years has been HUUM sauna stoves and controllers, which get great reviews from sauna enthusiasts for the quality of their heat and steam, as well as their aesthetic.
There’s now high demand from Brits for private home saunas, as is already normal here in Estonia. The pandemic is partly responsible for some of that demand as it’s led to increased investment in home renovations, as well as greater focus on wellness. However, this has merely accelerated a trend that was already growing.
Here’s a few recent examples of those new home saunas across the UK.
These were all built by Heartwood Saunas, which we’ve been delivering HUUM sauna stoves and control systems to for more than a year now.
Every sauna is special, of course, but I think my personal favourite out of these new home saunas in the UK belongs to the celebrity adventurer, best selling author, and broadcaster Ben Fogle.
A number of British celebrities have invested in saunas with Estonian design in recent years. Both David Beckham and Guy Ritchie, for example, have purchased iconic Iglucraft saunas made in southern Estonia.
In Fogle’s case, he contacted Heartwood Saunas to say he wanted a sauna inspired by remote wilderness cabins that he’s visited around the world.
They agreed a brief to design and build “a bespoke rustic alpine cabin that opened to reveal a sauna, using reclaimed materials that blend as if it’s been there for ever”.
The end result is beautiful.
But this British sauna revolution is not just confined to private homes.
There’s also now an enormous variety of new public sauna experiences, often in guest houses and campsites, as well as pop-up saunas on beaches, which are growing in popularity alongside the trend for year-round sea swimming.
Here’s one of the first pioneers of that movement, which is Beach Box Spa in Brighton. They build everything themselves using upcycled materials, such as old horse boxes.
They also build horse box saunas for others, such as the local Premiership football team, Brighton & Hove Albion FC, which had a sauna with an Estonian HUUM stove delivered to its training pitch.
As for the beach spa, it’s now fully booked every day from early in the morning.
Inspired by their success, there are now estimated to be about 25 horse box saunas built across the UK in just the last few years.
More Brits are also discovering wonderful older sauna establishments that have been around longer. In London, for example, you can have a great sauna at the New Docklands Steam Baths, the South Kensington Club, the Beaumont hotel, and the Finnish Church (yes, seriously).
My own personal favourite is the beautifully restored Royal Baths in Harrogate — the Victorian spa town in Yorkshire where our UK subsidiary for Estonian Saunas is now based.
We had quite a challenging start to 2021 ourselves though.
The end of the Brexit transition period resulted in enormous new paperwork and costs for EU to UK imports. So we took some time out to fully understand the new processes and create our own UK subsidiary before resuming a smooth service for our customers who now never have to deal with the paperwork or get any extra, unexpected costs. You can read more about that here:
Here’s how we keep delivering Estonian sauna design & tech to post-Brexit Britain
Don’t sweat about extra paperwork and fees when ordering a HUUM sauna stove in the UK.
As a result, we’ve so far in 2021 helped build 33 new saunas in the UK by delivering Estonian design and technology to them.
The tagline for our business is that we export Estonian sauna design, technology, and traditions. That last bit is really important to us.
Plenty of Brits get excited about the idea of having their own sauna. But many aren’t quite sure how they would use it properly. Many are surprised to learn, for example, that yes they really can pour water on the stones! So sharing Estonian sauna culture — and helping Brits rediscover and reinvent their own sauna culture — is key.
That’s also why we create so much content about Estonia and its sauna culture in English to help educate sauna enthusiasts in Britain and beyond, including on our @EstonianSaunas YouTube channel, blog, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. And we’re always happy to use those channels to support other people and businesses doing great things in Estonia and for sauna culture around the world.
It’s even possible in many of these new British saunas to find whisks, that’s what English speakers are now calling the bundles of branches we use to beat ourselves. We call one a viht in Estonian and you can learn how we make them here.
One thing English speakers don’t yet have though is a word for ‘sauna steam’, which is one of the most sacred words in Estonian and other Finnic languages. So we’ve been suggesting that our Estonian word, leil, should be used in English. It’s slowly catching on!
Down at Beach Box Spa in Brighton, they’ve even used Leil for the name one of their saunas.
Last weekend, I also spoke at TEDxTallinn about leil and the problem of many modern saunas around the world not allowing water to be poured on the stove.
Ok, it may not be the biggest issue facing our planet, but we had a good laugh together about why so many celebrities around the world have such bad saunas — often with no steam, no stones, devoid of tradition, used alone, and while believing a load of pseudoscientific bullshit.
The conclusion was that we can help fix this by teaching more people the meaning of leil and making it the first Estonian word to enter English and common usage globally. That would also help people better understand their own sauna history, as well as ours.
We’ll share the video once it is online in the next few weeks.
We talk about Britain ‘rediscovering’ its sauna heritage because Britain has always been a sauna nation in the sense that communal bathing using hot rocks and steam has a long history on these isles. Well, with the exception of a few hundred saunaless years here and there — first when public bathing was banned in the 16th century out of disease fears and then when the modern domestic bathrooms largely replaced public bathing into the modern era.
Yet, the oldest sweat lodge ever discovered by archaeologists was in stone age Britain and the tradition continued through the Bronze Age, in ancient Celtic culture, into the Roman era, through the supposedly dark middle ages after Anglo-Saxons arrived, and then, despite some setbacks, has been continuously reinvented often with the help of international influences from the Ottomans to the Finns. And now the Estonians too.
We wanted to learn more about all this — both Britain’s sauna history and how Estonian design and technology is shaping its sauna future.
The Great British sauna tour
Thanks to the easing of pandemic restrictions, my partner Anni and I grabbed our towels and hopped on a plane from Tallinn to have a little Great British sauna tour – which we documented on YouTube.
Part 1: Inside the Victorian Royal Baths in Harrogate
Fresh out of quarantine in Yorkshire, I headed to the local bath house, which also happens to be Britain’s best preserved Victorian bath house and almost entirely unchanged since the day Queen Victoria’s family would bathe here with nobility from across Europe.
Even the toilets are antiques. It’s still a functioning bath house and now operated by the council, which is why developers haven’t had a chance to tear out the history and turn it into another boring spa hotel of the type that can be found anywhere in the world. I also love the fact that it’s not a museum but a real functioning bath house popular with a lively mix of regular locals and visitors.
You’re not normally allowed cameras in here, of course, but as a “sauna influencer” they let me film inside.
Part 2: What the Romans never did for us
Next, some Romano-British bathing history.
For this, I traveled down to my hometown of Chichester, the historical capital of Sussex, and to a little village on the edge of it called Fishborne where I was born. Despite being Estonian, I have family that fled Soviet persecution and so we ended up here.
I always thought I grew up in a saunaless village but, as it turns out, one of Britain’s most important saunas was right under my nose (and feet) the whole time…
Part 3: Beach Box Spa in Brighton
Anni arrived in Britain later than me but, once she was out of quarantine, we travelled back down to Sussex — this time to the ‘home of watering places’, Brighton.
Bathing towns in Britain are known as watering places and these boomed during the Victorian era, although have been in decline throughout the 20th century — partly as a result of cheap flights to places like Estonia.
However, Brighton is also one of the most creative places in Britain and it’s constantly reinventing itself — including when it comes to bathing. The city is one of the top export destinations for Estonian sauna design and technology. So we headed down to Beach Box Spa to experience it.
Part 4: Heartwood Saunas in Wales
Britain doesn’t just build saunas. It’s also now exporting them. And leading this is Heartwood Saunas, the luxury sauna builder based at the top of a mountain in Wales and surrounded by lush forest. More than a few of couriers have got lost while delivering Estonian HUUM stoves and control systems there. Fortunately, we managed to find it so we could see how their saunas are built and try one for ourselves.
Part 5: …to be continued.
We’re back home in Estonia but we’re going to create one more episode remotely later this year.
We’re going to Skype some of the saunas we didn’t make it to so we can feature their stories too. Watch this space. Oh, and yes we know there are better video calling services these days but Skype was also Estonian technology and basically the law that we have to remind everyone abroad of that at any opportunity.
Join us at the World Sauna Race next year in Tallinn
If you‘re a fan of saunas, you might also be interested in the World Sauna Race, which we’re hosting next year in Tallinn. I’ll be honest, it’s not really a race. It’s a fun orienteering game in which you’ll get to try a wide variety of weird and wonderful saunas in a single day.
Here’s a 1-minute video explaining it:
Thanks for reading
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