Words by Hamish Lawson | Images by John Hersey
A unique wood-fired sauna experience on the Cornish cliffs.
On the cliff top overlooking Watergate Bay sits a stylish black wooden cabin with a large picture window looking out over the ocean. This is Sauna Society, a luxurious new experience open to all and offering heat, health and horizons from within its wooden walls.
Entering the wooden chamber provides a sense of peace almost immediately. Golden, pinkish wooden tones are offset by hard, dark detailing, and a wood-burner laden with stones specifically chosen for the way they radiate heat from the exquisitely designed HUUM stove. A fire dances behind the glass of the door and a pile of evenly split logs sit between the entrance and the fire.
Sauna Society is the brainchild of Damian Lucas-Box and Anthony Mullally, a pair of sauna aficionados with a desire to share and build a community around the benefits of sauna bathing. This isn’t Damian’s first business in the Newquay area, having previously found success with restaurants and cafés, Box and Barber and Sushea – both are popular hangouts in the town and cater to Newquay’s taste for a nice brunch or classy evening meal respectively. Anthony, meanwhile, is a professional rugby player, who discovered the power of heat and cold therapy and breathwork as a way to enhance his performance and recovery. The pair chose the cliffs above Watergate for reasons that are immediately obvious to anyone who has spent time there: it’s a spectacular spot to catch a golden sunset or a cooler sunrise, and the ever-changing view can be taken in through the massive picture window that looks out over the bay.
Sauna Society offers a luxury experience for a fraction of the price. Spending time amongst the businesses that cling on to the cliffs above the bay, brings a festival holiday atmosphere – it’s easy enough to grab a coffee or a sandwich, head down for a swim in the sea or even book a surf lesson or yoga session. “Having witnessed the success of the other businesses on the cliff-top, we knew that Watergate was going to be the perfect first location for Sauna Society. Community is important to us, and we want Sauna Society to be seen as an asset to locals and visitors alike, offering the benefits of sauna to all,” says Damian.
Anthony and Damian first met during the pandemic. Both live in Newquay and during the successive lockdowns they formed a friendship based on a mutual appreciation of the benefits of the natural environment. Both had turned to the ocean and ran into each other whilst exploring the coastline during those periods of staying at home. Chance encounters later evolved into a post-swim coffee club once society had opened up again, when a group of locals would meet up outside Damian’s café, Box and Barber, following sea swims. “I think we all realised that we needed some social warmth in our lives! We all had our own interests, but what brought us together was our enjoyment of pushing ourselves, and love for the ocean,” explains Anthony.
Box and Barber coffee sessions soon evolved into the Feel Cold Collective, a cold-water swimming group that the pair still actively participate in that has developed a life of its own. Members meet several times a week, sometimes daily, early in the morning to start their day with a swim in the sea. Anthony and Damian are keen to espouse the benefits of cold-water, as well as the heat of the sauna. Both are fully committed sea swimmers, hitting the waters around Newquay throughout summer and winter. The health benefits of cold water swimming are nowadays difficult to argue with, so when combined with recent scientific research into the emerging field of ‘blue health’ and how the sea can have a huge impact on our mental and physical wellbeing, it isn’t hard to see why so many people are joining Anthony, Damian and their friends for one of their early morning swimming sessions, as Anthony explains: “The science showing the positive links between sauna and cold water, and improved health and wellbeing, are staggering.”
As it so happens, the simple act of experiencing mild discomfort in a controlled setting can be good for you. It’s similar to exercising, except that instead of focusing on what’s going in your muscles it’s about what’s going on in your brain and your nervous system. Hermetic stress (low level deliberate stress) is a way of exercising your nervous system for improved health and wellbeing. We live in a world where comfort is easier to access than it ever has been; between sugar, central heating, and television, we can get a chemical high whenever we desire. Modern science is showing, however, that by doing so, and by seeking and arguably overloading on comfort, ease, and convenience, we’re starving ourselves of discomfort and the balance that it provides.
The body likes homeostasis and maintaining balance within its systems. In the case of hermetic stress, this means the production of dynorphin. If dynorphin sounds vaguely familiar to you then it’s because you’ve probably heard of similar hormones that our bodies produce called endorphins – the so-called ‘happy chemical’. Endorphins are the chemicals behind the feeling of a ‘runner’s high’. What we now know is that for the body to experience the full benefits of endorphins it must also experience dynorphins, or discomfort. Too many endorphins, and the body’s sensors become saturated, and it requires a healthy dosage of dynorphins to flush things out and reinstate the balance and sensitivity of chemical receptors between the brain and the body.
It turns out that a little bit of discomfort, in whatever form you choose to engage in it, is good for you. Anthony and Damian know how they like to get their system to produce a dose of dynorphins, and that’s through the heat of the sauna and cold-water swims. Research has shown that individuals who regularly expose themselves to heat stress are 40% less likely to die of non-accidental death. Heat stress improves cardiovascular as well as neurological health, and broadly helps people to live longer, happier, and more fulfilling lives. Just as how running can result in the feeling of the ‘runner’s high’, exposure to different temperatures can result in changes in how the body manages stress in all situations.
Sauna Society is taking the science of wellbeing seriously. Anthony is a keen proponent of alternative practises to promote good health but also to improve performance, the benefits of which he discovered during his professional rugby career: “Whilst playing rugby with Leeds I also got pretty into breathwork and movement practises. It started as a way to develop my performance; I found that breathwork really helped me focus and be totally present on the rugby pitch. I was really surprised about the difference that breathwork could make to my performance and I started doing my own research. That pathway led me to Oxygen Advantage, and through their programmes I became a practitioner myself. Breathwork led me into the world of more spiritually enriching practises like yoga and meditation, all related to breath of course. I also became familiar with scientists like Dr Andrew Huberman and Dr Rhonda Fitzpatrick – they’re some of the leading scientists bringing cutting edge science regarding mental and physical wellbeing through to the public.”
It’s important to note that Sauna Society as a business sits on the intersection of community, education, and wellbeing. Its founders care about all three and are keen to promote and facilitate social experiences in Cornwall. There is something for everyone at Sauna Society, whether you are looking for a luxury private experience, or an education in breathing and reconnection, you can find it out on the cliff-top above Watergate Bay. Anthony has already begun his monthly workshop series which partners with Sauna Society’s neighbour, the Zen Den Yoga studio. These workshops utilise the sauna, as well as Anthony’s breathwork training and workshop leadership expertise. The time is split between cold water and the hot sauna, with walks down to the beach providing an opportunity for the group to discuss wellness and steps they have made in their efforts to improve their own health. They are empowering meetings of individuals, who often come from a range of walks of life.
Another success story of Sauna Society so far is the weekly ‘open to all’ communal sessions. Not satisfied with just running a sauna, Anthony and Damian are looking to create a business with meaning and social impact. The communal sessions offer an opportunity for anyone to book a seat in the sauna and join others for some restorative time on the cliff-top. The result is an experience you can find in few other places in Cornwall, let alone Newquay.
Sunrise and Sundown sessions at the sauna represent the kind of luxury experiences that you don’t necessarily expect to find on your doorstep. Sauna Society therefore offers a friendly reminder about the opportunity to find the beauty in your home by thinking a little differently, and that when we embrace the natural beauty that surrounds us in conscious ways, peace can be found with very little effort. The location above Watergate is just the beginning for Sauna Society, an early adopter of Wildhut who are a new mobile sauna maker based out of Brighton in the south east. Their relationship and the initial success of siting such a stylish sauna unit in an incredible location will hopefully lead to more saunas in more locations throughout Cornwall.
“We already have plans for our second and third locations; Newquay is just the start really. We are also aware that to some people a sauna by the sea might be a slightly strange concept. We’re not expecting things to catch on overnight and we know that these things take time, but It didn’t take long for us to get hooked on sauna. As the number of people who experience the benefits of saunas grows, we’re excited to bring Sauna Society to more communities throughout Cornwall,” concludes Damian.