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The world saw a more polished side to London’s East End during the 2012 Olympics, but the Barking Bathhouse – a quirky pop-up project open until 16 September in Dagenham -- is a reminder of the raw creativity and passion the area was built on.
Inspired by a local Victorian bathhouse that closed in 1986 after nearly 90 years, the Barking Bathhouse is a no-frills, low-tech and sustainable version of a modern day luxury spa and bar.
The 6,000sqft temporary structure on the site of a derelict pub in Dagenham’s town centre is a cross between a barn and a beach hut. It is made from a collection of purpose-built black timber containers that can be easily disassembled and relocated to playgrounds, allotments or youth centres in the area when the project is done. All the materials used are recycled or reclaimed -- tables are made from old wooden planks and drinks are served in jam jars, giving the eco-friendly space a rustic, charming feel.
Spa services are basic – don’t expect heated blankets or power showers -- this is a creative space and not a five-star hotel. But there is something especially relaxing about the paired down, back-to-nature aesthetic; although admittedly that might also have something to do with the affordable prices. A manicure or pedicure is £15, a facial using cucumbers grown on site is £20 and a one hour deep tissue massage just £30. When you are finished being pampered try the wood-fired sauna or dry-ice chilled cold room, or just relax in your bathrobe in the outdoor sun room on a mock beach made of pebbles. Treatments must be booked in advance, but you can also pay a flat fee (£2 for local Dagenham residents, £8 for everyone else) to use the sauna, cold room and relaxation areas.
Just as bathhouses in the 19th Century were as much a social hub as they were a place to relax, the bar at the Barking Bathhouse is a great meeting spot. The menu is simple: there are fruity cocktails and smoothies made with local produce like the cucumbers growing in a canopy above the bar, as well as a selection of wine and beer. They also host occasional workshops such as laughter yoga or meditation, and there is a line up of intimate evening performances by comedy and cabaret performers who were all finalists at the annual New Act of the Year competition
The off-the-wall project which aims to draw attention to this poorer suburb is part of Create, an arts initiative that inspires Londoners to see their city in a different light. The Barking Bathhouse is not far in distance from the shiny new Olympic Park -- but it couldn’t be further away in spirit.
Malika Dalamal is the London Localite for BBC Travel