This weekend, exhausted by an unexpectedly debilitating strain of hay fever, Megan suggested the two of us find something to do in London that didn’t involve parks or other pollen-filled outdoor spaces.
We found ourselves on a bright, blowy section of the Thames, on a bend with views to the left of Battersea Power Station, and to the right of more familiar sights like the London Eye. Our destination was the Nine Elms Apothecary Experience (a/k/a The Horticultural Spa), along the South Bank (close to Vauxhall tube station, MI6, and all that).
Set back from the river’s edge was a modest-sized translucent dome with a wooden structure attached. Scattered around were chilled people of various ages enjoying free herbal tea and the summer sun. The dome was smaller than we’d anticipated, but roomy for 10-12 visitors to gather inside it.
After a short wait, we entered through a Velcro airlock – my boots covered with plastic overshoes, Megan’s flip-flops removed – and found ourselves in a rather otherworldly space.
A small device was pumping out a steady flow of steam, and two volunteers talked us through the whole thing. One would add herbally-infused essential oils and waft the steam with a towel, and the other would occasionally chip in – between deep nosefuls of vapours – to explain the significance of that particular scent.
Sat on the floor of the tent – some of us bundled up, and others stretched out – our small group proceeded to control our breathing, and to allow ourselves to become engulfed by a thick cloud of steam. At times, visibility was such that you could barely see the ends of your own outstretched legs. It was much like sitting in a steam room, or perhaps quite like being caught within a cloud on a mountaintop. There was a nicely odd acoustic quality to our little plastic bubble, too, which added to the strange effect.
We spent fifteen minutes or so in an almost meditative state as five different scents were carefully added to the vapour. Our session seemed to be aiming at restoring balance, both to our mindset and our digestive system, with the aid of dill, coriander, rose geranium, lavender, and parsley.
Occasionally the wind – along with the hazy sensation of the sun, only a dim reminder of the outside world – would knock the sides of our vulnerable bubble. This would cause droplets of condensation to drip drip drip down, feeling almost like a wander through woodland after a shower.
As the scent programme came to an end, we were encouraged to take our time before leaving. It was an unhurried, relaxing experience. To wander in off the South Bank to a womb-like sanctuary for a brief spell made it feel like precious a resource, and one to treasure. Alas, I don’t think it is there any more. But I’m glad we found it while it was.
And as an antidote to hay fever? Well, I sneezed once when the dill first wafted in and my nostrils adjusted to the humid cloud, but from the blissful look on Megan’s face as it came time to leave, I’d say it had the desired effect – at least temporarily.