‘I’d be lost without it’: Locals fight to save Carlisle Turkish Baths | Carlisle

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One of the UK’s last public Turkish baths could close this month unless campaigners can change their minds in time.

The Victorian-style Carlisle Baths opened in 1909 and were Grade II listed in 2010 in recognition of their decorative tiling and glazed stonework, as well as the stained glass ceiling above the plunge pool.

One of the most affordable Turkish baths in the UK, with entry costing £7.10, they have a dedicated community of regulars who bring the world to life in the sauna and three hot rooms several nights a week.

The rosette on the ceiling of the thermal baths. Photography: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

But Carlisle City Council decided to mothball the complex after investing £27million in a new leisure center on the other side of town. This should open in mid-October, when the staff of the operators, GLL/Better, should be transferred to the new site.

Time is running out to save the baths, with councilors due to decide on Monday October 3 whether to close the site or keep it going, while campaigners work on a plan to take over and develop the baths as a community asset.

locker room at the baths
Activists hope to save Victorian and Turkish baths from closure. Photography: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

They hope to turn the site into a “health and wellness center”, converting one of the pools into a hydrotherapy center, opening treatment rooms and installing extras, such as an alternative ice cave to the deep pool.

Running the site costs around £15,000 a month, the council estimates, with heating bills likely to rise in the coming months. Twelve bathers are allowed for each session, with participants limited by the number of curtained changing rooms, each with a bed to relax in after sweating or steaming.

The regulars are distraught at the thought of losing their sanctuary. “I’d be lost without it, to be honest,” said Donna Darlington, a beautician who visits at least once a week. “It’s so important to my mental health.”

Gill Roncarelli
Gill Roncarelli loves Laconium. Photography: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Gill Roncarelli, who started coming 23 years ago to soothe her aching limbs while working as head of dance at the University of Cumbria, says that after each visit, “it feels like to be on vacation “.

Iain Young said he comes to the baths up to four times a week – “It’s addicting” – for the camaraderie as much as the health benefits. “We have one or two guys with depression and they feel safe talking about it in the sauna. It’s amazing how a swimsuit can level the playing field,” Young said.

Julie Mines
Julie Minns, chair of the Victorian and Turkish Baths Friends of Carlisle, says the baths help people improve their mental health. Photography: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

A regular is a recovering alcoholic who started coming at weekends when all his friends were going to the pub, said Julie Minns, chair of Friends of Carlisle Victorian and Turkish Baths, which secured funding for a viability study for the group’s proposal. “He said it had done wonders for his mental health.”

Her mother, Freda, 88, remembers coming to the baths in the 1960s when attendants gave massages and delivered tea and toast to bathers chilling in the cabins. “She reportedly arrived stressed after a shift at the factory and said she left feeling like a million bucks,” Minns said.

The first Turkish baths in Britain and Ireland opened in 1852 in County Cork, and over the next century around 700 were built. Only 12 remain in operation, nine of which are public, and that of Carlisle is the last in the North West of England.

Turkish baths are known for their healing waters. The original Carlisle Baths sign suggests that people should take regular baths for “alleviation of rheumatism and related conditions, general tonic effect, obesity and relief of stress”.

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