Visiting a hot spring and soaking in the warm water is my kind of vacation. It would be a dream to book a whole spa mini-vacation and make a weekend of it. I got so close to achieving this dream when I visited Bath, England. I was only about 2,000 years too late.
Bath was named after the only hot springs in England. Why is the water hot, you ask? Well, the city sits on lava (duh!). It sits on the mouth of an extinct volcano, so there are no eruptions and the water is warmed for a pleasant dip in the pool. Win win! The springs were originally used by the Celts. A shrine was built honoring the goddess Sulis, a sun goddess worshipped for her seer abilities and healing powers. The mineral-rich water from the hot springs itself was believed to have healing elements. The goddess had the power to heal as well as punish wrong doorers. Archaeologists found “curse tablets” around the springs asking for Sulis’s aid. When the Romans occupied Britain, Sulis was renamed Sulis Minerva, connecting her to the Roman goddess. They named the town Aquae Sulis.
Under Roman rule, the shrines replaced by baths. A temple was built honoring Sulis Minerva and the hot springs became an ancient spa. The temple was started 60-70 AD and was added on for the next 300 years. Through leaded pipes, the Romans guided the heated water through several chambers. The water is still naturally heated to about 114.8℉ (46℃). Three hundred and nine thousand gallons (1,170,000 L) rise from the ground everyday. This allowed the Romans to build the main bath (5.2 feet or 1.6 meters deep), now an open space, but back then covered by a vaulted roof, and smaller hot rooms. There was also one cold bath available to patrons. In the 12th century, further construction was done to the bath to include a King’s Bath at the northwest corner of the baths.
Baths were not new to the Romans. There were many created back in Italy, their main purpose being cleanliness. The second purpose was socializing. Entrance fees were low enough to allow most citizens in (with some free days thrown in by a politician or emperor), so people would go to the baths, clean off the grime of ancient city life and hang out. Men and women didn’t bathe together (no shocker there). Depending on the bath, they would either bathe at different times or in different rooms. A typical Roman bath had a room for changing, a large warm bath in the middle where people would meet and socialize, a steam room, a room with a cold bath, and gym for bathers to exercise. Essentially, Roman baths were ancient 24 Hour Fitnesses (though, I’m not too keen on getting into a large warm pool with a bunch of other people that haven’t bathed in who knows how long. The largest known bath is the Baths of Diocletian built in 306 AD. Those baths could hold 3,000 people. I don’t want to stew with 3,000 people…)
England’s Roman bath tends to be more well known today. It was rediscovered in 1727 when workers were digging a sewer trench (ew) and discovered the gilded head of Minerva. Further excavation was done over the next fifty years. The sight were surprisingly intact and the warm mineral water still flowed into the baths. The building and temple were lost when the Romans left Britain. Silt from a river nearby eventually covered the whole site, hiding it until the 18th century. The site was reopened then, the baths made popular since bathing was in fashion (I hope it continues to stay in fashion). You can see evidence of this in literature. Jane Austen lived in Bath for a while. Two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were set in the city (Side note. I’ve read Persuasion. Good book, but it can be summarized quickly. Boy likes girl, girl thinks boy is too poor and rejects him. Boy goes off and becomes ruggedly sexy. Boy returns and girl changes her mind. Boy rejects her. They separate again, both damaged by unrequited love, and finally meet again one last time and get together. By the end of the book I just wanted to knock both Boy and Girl over the head). Mary Shelley was inspired by the city and finished her novel, Frankenstein. Finally, Charles Dickens was also a frequent visitor of Bath, staying in the city’s oldest pub, The Saracen’s Head.
Today, Bath, England is a globally recognized heritage site (the whole city, the only one in the UK). The city meets three criteria for to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These criterion include: (i) human creative genius (for its architecture), (ii) interchange of values (for the additions made on the baths in the 18th century), and (iv) significance in human history (for contributions in Roman and Georgian society). The takeaway? It’s a great place to visit. Bath is historically significant. You can see the baths and a museum with Minerva’s gilded head and other artifacts. The building is what you would expect from the Romans. The main bath is surrounded above by stone guards and ladies. Pillars enclose the baths below. We arrived as the sun was setting, giving the baths a beautiful glow by torchlight.
You can’t go into the original baths anymore because of the lead pipes the Romans used. You can experience the waters at spas in the area though. Thermae Spa is one that opened in 2004. The metallic mildew smell of the ancient baths might not exactly make you excited to try the healing powers of the mineral water yourself, but you also have the option to visit the Pump Room. This room overlooks the baths. The upper class visited the room to drink the water for their healing power. You can visit the Pump Room today, now a restaurant, and try the water too (for a price). I didn’t get a chance to do this, but I’m not shocked to hear that the water doesn’t taste good.
Bath is visited by millions each year, a great example of history meeting present day. I feel like I have just scratched the surface on Bath. I’d need another visit to see it all!