Steam on the beach – bringing Finnish sauna culture to an English spa town

Health and wellbeing trends are having a revival in the traditional spa town of Brighton, with a Finnish sauna leading the way.

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Inside the Beach Box in Brighton, as two sauna-goers use vihta inside / Credit: Beach Box

As a Finn in the United Kingdom, there is nothing quite as depressing as having to rely on gym or spa saunas as your place of relaxation and contemplation.

The damp, barely-warm room filled with the smell of chlorine that leaves you slimy and sweaty is a far-cry from the crisp warmth of a proper sauna.

All the while your British friends remark on how much at home you must feel.

No, that is as far away from home sauna as one can get. Living abroad, even people who are not hardcore sauna-goers will start missing the ritual of having a löyly on a Saturday night, and the blissful post-sauna feeling.

From the point of view of a Finnish person, there is much to be desired in British sauna culture. Especially if you, rightfully so, consider Finnish sauna to be the only authentic one.

Luckily there are some sauna pioneers in the UK, dedicated to introducing an authentic Finnish sauna experience.

A traditional Finnish wood-fired sauna on the beach at Brighton, an historic spa town on the south coast of England / Credit: Beach Box

The Brighton Beach Box first opened for the city’s 2018 Fringe Arts Festival, and has since remained part of the landscape.

Founders of Brighton Beach Box, Liz Watson and Katie Bracher, converted an old horse trailer into a wood-burning sauna that, quite frankly, is better than my electric kiuas in Finland.

The sauna is small, it can host around six or seven people, but Finnish equivalents have always been intimate.

Customers can buy salts and scrubs, and the view from the window allows you to gaze on the famous beach and its nearby pier. On the pews of the horse trailer-come-sauna, even the noise of water hitting the stones is enough to bring your mind to Finland. The sea is always cold enough for a mid-sauna plunge, and the scenery is very beautiful.

The only disruption is the calls of seagulls outside – but that is just a part of Brighton.

Box Sauna on Brighton Beach / Credit: Saara-Maria Salonen.

Brighton’s spa town heritage

Brighton beach is an ideal place for a sauna. Especially since the England’s south coast has a history of well-being, and is dotted with heritage spa towns.

One of the most famous bathers in Brighton was Martha Gunn who operated a portable cabin called a ‘dipper’ which she pushed out into the sea, so the 18th century ladies inside would have their modesty protected when they paddled in the water.

While bathing in the sea was not a popular entertainment at that time, the seawater was believed to have healing properties.

Modern-day portable spa owners Liz and Katie see themselves as part of the revitalisation of health and wellness culture in Brighton. The sea used to be quite polluted, and this affected Brighton’s image. Projects like the Beach Box can help change this image.

Similarly, in the decades past Brighton has gained a reputation as a party city – which is all well, but Beach Box wants to promote a healthy high.

“We see ourselves as part of that development of well-being and connecting with the nature in the city,’ Katie says. And many do come out of the sauna feeling relaxed and renewed. That feeling you have post-sauna, not a lot of people have
experienced it before” she continues.

And Katie knows what she is talking about: she is the co-founder of the British Sauna Society, and has worked with several sauna projects in the UK.

Liz, on the other hand, has 15 years’ worth of experience in homeopathy in London. Their combined knowledge and passion for sauna guarantees that even the most demanding sauna-goer will be pleased with the experience at Beach Box.

The founders work with quite a simple ethos:

“One of the key things is that we want people to have a really good quality and authentic sauna experience,’ Katie says. The pair have made research trips to Finland to experience the different public saunas – and it shows, the Beach Box is equipped with eucalyptus oil and a proper vihta or vasta made of birch branches.

Sauna-goers run on the pebbles at Brighton Beach towards the sea / Credit: Brighton Beach Box

Steam on the beach in Brighton

There’s a couple already in the sauna when I arrive, who pour a cheeky splash of non-alcoholic beer from small cans onto the stones. For a moment, the whole sauna smells like a lovely bakery.

There are some differences to saunas in Finland. Beach Box-goers don swimming suits or wraps, since the British are not quite as accustomed to the body’s natural state as the Finns. But the owners have noticed other differences as well.

“Our sauna is quite social, people chat a lot. In Finland it is a bit more meditative” says Katie.

And even though saunas in Finland are often quiet place, perhaps Katie is yet to experience sauna during Midsummer celebrations when they can get boisterous!

Another Finnish sauna-goer happens to be at Beach Box at the same time. Varpu Laakkonen has come from another coastal town Portsmouth, and has been living in the UK for eleven years. She found the sauna almost by accident when a British celebrity posted about it social media, and is already very happy with her sauna experience.

“It is very rare to find this kind of proper sauna” says Varpu. “Really good sauna, very good löyly, completely different to other saunas in Britain”.

Finnish customers are not a rarity at all – the Finnish community around the south of England know about the Beach Box. “We are always a bit nervous when they come, wondering if we’re doing it correctly” Liz laughs.

There is nothing to worry about – Liz and Katie have recreated an authentic piece of Finland on Brighton beach, and getting to experience a real Finnish sauna is a rare treat in the land where most saunas are sticky steam boxes in gyms.

While it is perfect for the Finnish community, what it brings to the people of Brighton is even better. In the hectic modern-day life, now the community can also learn the beauty of winding down in a Finnish sauna after a long day.

There is no feeling that quite matches the almost meditative state of post-sauna bliss.