It's fine, I know bloomers have little to do with hot tubs, and that hot tubs are mostly better enjoyed without bloomers, but I've had so many women ask me how I went about setting up my own tub, that I thought I'd share the process here. Women need to support and empower each other. If we don't try these things, we'll never know the extent of our awesomeness.
Half the sky? Yeah, AND the rest.
Once upon a time, I soaked in a tub, warmed by wood, accessed by a ladder, in a mist filled field, in the company of druids. The stars, the chill night air, the steaming hot water, the giggles interspersed with the night’s silence, left a mark on my soul. I’ve never wanted for jewels and big cars but prefer the value of nature’s riches, and the sweet dark uterine richness of warm water, night time stillness and the universe looking down, will never leave me wanting.
The romance of it all is lost in bright daylight hours, of course. That dark, warm uterus was actually a plastic water container on a mobile trailer. The heat was sourced from a dug out fire pit, with a ‘plumbed in’ radiator positioned at an angle. As the water in the radiator heated, it rose, expanded and escaped from the top vent, thus pulling the cold tub water in through the lower vent. This heat movement, I learnt some 41 years ago, is called convection.
Convection is partly how I heated my 60ft narrow boat, ‘Morgana’. The wood burner heated the living area, but there was a ‘water pocket’ inside the stove, which heated three radiators at the back of the boat. Even in the depths of winter, I stayed toasty warm. I loved boat living, and being responsible for my own heat, electricity (solar) water, etc. If everyone, for a short time in their lives, carried their own water and fetched fuel for heat and cooking, there would be more respect and pleasure in using nature’s resources.
After moving on and selling my boat, I still had a field for my small herd of milking goats. A third of the field boundary was provided by a river. I dreamed up plans to make a straw-walled tub, filled from the river by a 12v pump. In my mind, I’d plumb in the disused wood burner, and soak to my heart’s content in my field with the stars and the grazing horses for company.
I was then ‘gifted’ a bit of savings money. The NHS had kindly be keeping back some of my community midwifery earnings. The £4,000+ arrears certainly came in handy (and with interest, it would have been even better!). I set about making my own ‘off grid’ hot tub in my garden.
I didn’t want one of those plastic things, with bubbles, jets, noise, and smelly chemicals. I just wanted a tub. If it wasn’t that pretty, I’d make it so. Large water containers for sale online weren't quite what I had in mind, but I thought if I kept my eyes open I’d find the perfect tub. And I did. I found two tubs at a reclaimation yard. The first was a very large oak barrel. It was absolutely stunning, and the price tag was quite staggering, too. I fell in love with it, but better judgement won the day. Firstly, I didn’t know if it would collapse in transit. Secondly, I didn't know how long it would stay water tight or what maintenance would be necessary to keep it so.
But I then spotted the perfect galvanised steel agricultural storage container! It cost me £270, was water tight and would last me forever. The tub was delivered with a few other garden items I’d splashed out on, including a stack of bricks that I would lay out as a base for the tub. I bought gravel and finer sand to create a solid, supportive base for what would be a huge weight once filled with water.
The tub needed some cosmetic attention to remove the years of grime on the inside base and reduce the risk of it harbouring bugs. I used a wire brush to scrub away all the loose debris, and painted the whole of the base with a metal primer. I then used a rubber sealant around all the joins, not because I needed the seal, but I wanted to be able to clean it easily and thoroughly between each use. Lastly, two coats of ‘Hammerite’ silver metal paint coated the inside.
I didn’t use a spirit level to check the base before heaving the tub into place but, lucky for me, it was pretty level (I can’t believe I did all this work alone). The next step, I DID need help with. This was the point of plumbing the old stove into the tub. It was a little scary, cutting holes for the water pipes into that lovely tub, but progress required me to be brave. I had absolute faith that my plan would work. Holes, copper piping, sealants, a simple pressure release pipe (which is possibly unnecessary), a brand new flue to create the draw and keep the fairly enclosed area from filling with wood smoke...and it’s good to go!
Once the filling water level had covered the water pocket in the stove, I could light the fire. Four wood-fired hours later, the tub of water was ready to plunge into. Absolutely magnificent! A day of tidying in the garden and stoking the fire, could now come to a perfect end with a splosh and a nice long soak. I later reduced the whole preparation by installing an outside hot tap. Yup, cheating a little, but I’d gone to the trouble of putting the tub in the garden. If I didn’t have so much time, I could still manage to make the tub hot.
Now, hot water in a metal container is going to lose heat pretty quickly, especially in the icy depths of winter. I created a second fire and played with boiling saucepans. Not the most sensible idea I’ve ever had, but the person ousting themselves from the heat of the tub, into the cold night air to renew the hot pans, got the utmost pleasure of submerging themselves back again afterwards.
I made a hinged lid for the tub, too. I thought wooden ply, and several layers of varnish, would be light and easy to lift off when the tub was in use. I enjoyed painting it with moon-gazey maidens, hares and ivy. I bought some insulating wrap, and glued/stapled it to the underside in the hope this would retain some of the precious heat. It mostly fell off, and I resorted to covering the lid with another old duvet. It was a beautiful lid, but it didn’t last the year out.
However, that wasn’t quite enough to keep me toasty. So I took the heavy hearted decision to insulate the attractive tub exterior with an old duvet and fabric. The retention of heat was amazing. Last year, I replaced the duvet and fabric surround with a more durable tongue and groove wood. I used the off-cuts to replace the lid. Black gaffa tape holds the lot together, but I expect it to be perfectly adequate for a few years.
It’s not for everyone, I understand that, and it’s not the easiest way to enjoy a tub. There’s no electricity, no bubbles, no underwater lighting, no switches to maintain the temperature, and no pumps to move the water. I fill the tub from an outside tap, and I either use the wastewater on my garden or it’s siphoned into the hedge. I choose not to use chemicals. An occasional use of carefully measured chemical does mean, in hot weather, I can repeatedly dip without the tub becoming a breeding ground for TB and the like. But my body, soul, and garden prefer pure water. I can’t dip without thinking how incredibly lucky I am to have water to use in this way.
Within an hour it could be ready to go. Or I could fill it, light and stoke the fire, pop to the pub, and come home to the tub...stars, wood smoke, crackling fire, swirling water, stretching tired muscles, slurps of a decent chilled number, an owl, a fox, surges of hot water, farts and munching from the horses, giggles from a nearby friend, the creeping of water into your hairline as you submerge, stillness, weightlessness, darkness and peace; an exquisite feast for all six senses.