Bath’s magnificent ancient Roman bathing complex, complete with plunge pools, saunas and underfloor heating, set the scene for the city’s heyday as a Georgian spa resort
Hot Bath Street. Quiet Street. Comfortable Place. Perfect View. The quaint place names in Bath, southwest England, are redolent of a place of ease and relaxation. The ancient Romans certainly thought so: they chose Bath as the site of an incredible spa complex, built around a “sacred spring” thought to have healing properties.
More than a million litres of spring water gushes out of the ground every day here at a warm 46°C – which must have seemed like a miracle to the Romans. They built their lavish spa in around 70 AD, unique in the Roman Empire in its complexity and scale. They dedicated the on-site temple to Sulis Minerva, incorporating the name of the Celtic goddess worshipped by the local tribe with that of their own goddess of war and wisdom.
The baths are a masterwork of ancient engineering, with facilities that wouldn’t be out of place in a cutting-edge spa today. The hot water was channelled through lead pipes, with under-floor heating warming the chilly stone slabs and a series of chambers housing saunas, steam rooms and cool pools.
The baths were the social hub of society: people from all walks of life, from centurion to lowly pleb, could gossip, relax, flirt – and bathe, of course – in the vaporous spring waters. Snacks were sold waterside and bathers could indulge in all manner of pampering treatments.
It wasn’t all fun and games, of course. The temple and sacred spring were an important site of pilgrimage. Among the artefacts dredged from the waters and now on display in the on-site museum are coins thrown in as votive offerings, and curses written on thin strips of lead, thrown into the sacred pool for the goddess Minerva to act upon. “May he who carried off Vilbia from me become as liquid as the water,” reads one.
Today, as you stand before the steaming green waters of the Great Bath, framed by classical columns and overlooked by the weathered busts of Roman emperors, it’s easy to imagine toga-clad Romans reclining on marble slabs and luxuriating in the waters. A wallow in warm water would have been followed by an invigorating dip in the cold-water pool; life-sized projections of bathers bring the ancient scene to life.
In the early fifth century the Romans withdrew from Britain and the baths fell into disrepair. Two centuries later, the River Avon flooded and the baths were engulfed in thick black mud. The roofs of the baths and temple gradually collapsed, walls fell in, statues were swamped. The baths lay forgotten for centuries.
The town was still renowned for its healing waters, however. In the 11th century the King’s Bath was built over the site of the ancient baths. Fame of the spa’s therapeutic waters spread, attracting even royal visitors: in 1574 Queen Elizabeth I; in 1663 Charles II, whose wife Katherine of Braganza had failed to produce an heir; in 1687 James II, whose wife Mary of Modena became pregnant shortly after a visit; then Queen Anne, whose three visits in the early eighteenth century really put Bath on the map. The aristocracy headed to Bath in droves and it became a fashionable spa resort, prompting an architectural revival that transformed the city into the elegant place it is today.
Jane Austen, who later made Bath her home, accompanied her ailing brother Edward on a two-month trip in 1799. Probably suffering from gout and overindulgence, he made frequent visits to “take the waters”; Austen wrote hopefully to her sister Cassandra, “They all say that the effect of the Waters cannot be negative.”
Centre of the Georgian social whirl was the Pump Room, which allowed people to drink curative waters directly from the spring in elegant surroundings. Still genteelly evocative of the era, it now houses a smart restaurant which does a memorable afternoon tea, accompanied by the resident string trio.
Your ticket to the baths entitles you to a cupful of warm spa water at the Pump Room. Packed with 43 health-giving minerals, it is good for you, no doubt – but foul-tasting all the same. You might prefer to take the waters by indulging in one of the nearby spas: the state-of-the-art Thermae Bath Spa complex down the road gives visitors the chance to bathe in hot, mineral-rich waters, just as the Romans did over 2000 years ago.
But what of the original Roman baths, submerged in mud? In 1880 city workmen who had been called to the King’s Bath to investigate a persistent leak unearthed a glimpse of the old Roman spa. The rest of the structure was gradually brought to light and painstakingly restored, while the outer walls, columns and parapet are Victorian additions, designed by John Wood the Elder and Younger.
The complex was opened to the public in the late nineteenth century, and swimming was possible right up until the 1970s, though the waters are off-limits to bathers these days. Still, you can walk the ancient cobbles, past the sacred spring, changing rooms and the various pools, and see the remains of the temple.
Restoration of the baths continues, with a new area of currently inaccessible remains due to open to the public this year. What’s more, plans are afoot to put the 1,170,000 litres of piping-hot water that burst forth from the spring every day to ingenious new use. Rather than allowing it to flow into the River Avon, engineers will redirect the water to heat the vast medieval chambers of nearby Bath Abbey. A heating system that makes innovative use of existing resources? Even the hard-to-please Romans would have been impressed.