“Is this your first time?” We nodded. “It’s better than it looks,” she continued, pointing at a bath. “We steam it first and remove the critters.” We were stood between two massive glazed porcelain baths. Pipes clanked. A solitary drip fell from an ancient looking shower head and into the bath below. Ripples shot across the murky water.
I walked over to the nearest bath where steam rose from brownish water. Tentatively extending my arm beneath the surface, the green fronds parted temporarily, before lightly wrapping around my forearm. So, this is what a seaweed bath feels like. Hot, oily and actually rather nice.
We were stood in Kilcullen’s Seaweed Baths, an Edwardian building that has eased peoples’ aches in Enniscrone, Ireland since 1912. Then, as now, water is pulled up from the sea, heated, and sent gushing into enormous baths through beautifully industrial brass taps. And then it hits the seaweed.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The seaweed is the main course in this steampunk spa. A wooden box in the corner is our first port of call. I sit on the little bench and pull the door closed across my chest. Now just my head pokes out from the box. I hum “My Iron Lung” quietly to myself, before pushing down on a wooden lever hidden in the box.
Industrial levels of steam spew forth, warming my back before rushing up through the head hole to obscure my vision. Now, I’m not a fan of saunas, but this is actually rather nice. I spend the next five minutes or so in a soporific daze, idly varying the steam output from a gentle hum to a rough approximation of Stephenson’s Rocket.
Apparently this opens my pores ahead of the main event. A few yards away the mass of seaweed sits stewing in hot brine, turning the water an amber hue as the iodine leaches from the fronds. My pores sufficiently opened, I step out of the box – releasing a huge blast of steam – and slide into the bath.
It’s lovely. Kind of like bathing in hot, salty olive oil. Soon I’m scrubbing my face in the algae, having a little nibble at a steamy frond and, with tedious inevitability, constructing a seaweed wig. With it being a weekday in the off-season, we’re left to enjoy the bath for as long as we like, topping up the hot water periodically.
Eventually though, the need to get back to check on the animals pulls us out of our reverie. But before we go there’s one last step. It’s needed, I’m told, to close the pores. Personally I think it’s to give the staff a giggle by making the previously becalmed clientele shriek wildly. Nonetheless, I step under the shower head and clunk the handle into place.
Sea water pumped straight from the Atlantic rushes out. With this being March in Ireland, the water was a tad nippy, to put it mildly, but not unpleasant. One of those things you’re glad you’ve done, but not in a rush to do again.