Guest Blog: Author and sauna expert, Emma O’Kelly

Emma O’Kelly, author of Sauna: The Power of Deep Heat and Editor at Large at Wallpaper* magazine, will be joining us on the steps of our new Sauna Snug at RHS Chelsea Flower Show on Wednesday May 22nd to talk about the joy of saunas and, after a brief Q&A session, sign copies of her new book. As the countdown to Chelsea begins, we caught up with Emma to find out about this hot new wellness trend…

Firstly, can you tell us a little about yourself and what sparked your fascination with saunas?

The idea was born in 2016 when I was on assignment for Wallpaper* magazine, writing an art story on a remote island in Finland. After we had finished working we all headed to the sauna with some vodka and snacks and spent the evening chatting, sweating and jumping in an out of a cold lake. This is so much fun, I thought, why don’t we do this in UK!

I had always admired those ox-blood cabins in Scandinavia so I asked the curator on the island to connect me to a Finnish photographer who might be interested in doing a coffee table book on sauna. Maija Astikainen and I then met in Helsinki, she took some pictures, I wrote a proposal and we faced rejection after rejection after rejection, and we moved on. 

Then in 2019 Finnish sauna culture was added to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage and we did a story on it for Hole & Corner magazine. Then came the pandemic, and in its aftermath, a new-found focus on wellness. And since sauna is very good for our health, we finally got our book deal. I knew nothing about sauna but Maija, who being Finnish grew up with the sauna was my guide. It was, you might say, a baptism of fire.  

Emma O'Kelly, Sauna Expert
Emma enjoying a sauna

We are big fans of your book, Sauna: The Power of Deep Heat at Plankbridge. For those who haven’t laid their hands on a copy yet, can you give us a little taster?

We drove more than 10,000 kilometres in Maija’s trusted camper van, through the vast reaches of Sweden, Finland and Norway, where distances between hamlets, or not-even-hamlets, are huge. On windswept archipelagos, we sought out bathhouses with not a soul in sight, serviced by an honesty box and a stack of logs. In the winter wilderness of Lapland, we stumbled into ice saunas welded onto frozen lakes, rolled in the snow and jumped into ice holes. In spring, we dipped into semi-thawed waterfalls, dodging chunks of ice; and we threw ourselves off boats and rafts and sauna rooftops into warm summer waters. 

Sauna - cover

We sweated in horsebox saunas on cold British beaches, in raft saunas on Swedish lakes, in treehouse saunas in Finnish forests and visited around 50 saunas. We met bathers of every age, background and occupation; in Helsinki, we were serenaded by amateur musicians playing saws; in Estonia, pagan artists whisked us with birch branches. We met shamans, hipsters, office workers, heavily pregnant women, toddlers, babies and old timers who were born in the sauna and shared beer, vodka, sausages and stories with them. 

The Plankbridge Sauna Snug
The Plankbridge Sauna Snug interior

Why do you think saunas have gained in popularity in recent years? 

In the UK, the sauna boom goes hand-in-hand with the growing tribes of cold-water swimmers that have rediscovered lakes, rivers and seas. According to the British Sauna Society, there are around 80 saunas on British beaches. In cities like London, Bristol and Glasgow, Portacabins, army trucks, tents and all sorts of sauna contraptions are pitched up on parking lots, derelict docks and shady scrublands.

Can you talk us through the mental and physical benefits?

There are so many, and new studies are coming out all the time. It’s good for depression and anxiety, inflammation, pain relief, post work-out recovery. And 20 minutes in a sauna is the physical equivalent of a brisk walk, so for people with mobility issues, it’s also a good way to get a cardio-vascular work out. 

The Plankbridge Sauna Snug
The Plankbridge Sauna Snug exterior

What would be your advice to people thinking of buying a Sauna Snug for their garden? Anything tips for getting the most out of it? 

Lots and lots of steam, or löyly, as the Finns call it, fresh running water to cool off between cycles and sauna hats to keep your head cool. Sit on towels to keep the benches clean and invite friends. Many say sauna is the new pub, so why not make the most of it?

Explore the Plankbridge Sauna Snug here

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