The city of Bath, now a World Heritage Site, was known thousands of years ago for its healing waters. We know this because Celtic coins thrown into the water as offerings to the Celtic goddess, Sulis, were discovered here. Legends about the place started as early as 863 BC during the time of Bladud, the 9th King of the Britons. The legend says he was a leper who, on his travels, came to a place called Swainswick where pigs were wallowing in warm muddy water. His observant eye noted that the pigs had healthy looking—for pigs—skin. He dived in with the pigs and was miraculously cured of his leprosy, leading to the restoration of his inheritance of the kingdom on the death of his father, the 8th King. Needless to say, he wanted others to experience his discovery and so founded the city of Bath.
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But it took the enterprising Romans to really get the place swinging around 43 AD. Unlike their garrison towns, Aquae Sulis was an R and R place. The 46ºC (120ºF) waters soon developed a reputation for healing and treating rheumatic and muscular disorders. Tacitus in 80 AD described taking the waters as “one of those luxuries that stimulate to vice.” I don’t know what he had in mind, but it probably helped endear Bath to the Romans. In 70 AD they built a reservoir around the spring, a series of baths and a temple. The Great Bath, still fed today by the Roman lead conduit, measures 80ft. (24.4 metres) long by 40ft. (12.2 metres) wide by 5ft. (1.5 metres) deep. The Romans decorated it with intricate mosaic pavements. It was the beginning of Bath as a real tourist attraction.
Sadly, this luxury Roman spa fell into a somewhat ruinous state with the end of the Roman occupation. Drains clogged up, and the town was pillaged. It was picked up as a real estate bargain by John de Villula, Bishop of Somerset and Physician, for a mere L500. He began building a great Benedictine priory—now only the church nave remains. New baths, a school and a palace rose. Soon the wool trade catapulted Bath into prosperity.
Medieval England took Bath’s hot springs to heart. In the 11th century the King’s bath was built over the ancient temple, and the ill and infirm continued to wash themselves in the healing waters, searching for a cure to their ailments. In 1576 another bath, The Queen’s, was constructed, and the economy of the city revived. Along with bathing, drinking the waters became fashionable. Even Charles II, in 1663, lent his name to the enterprise by bathing in the Cross Bath.
The Bath springs played a part in an attempted Protestant uprising. In 1687 the wife of Catholic James II became pregnant after bathing in the waters. England wanted no part of a continued Catholic succession and let their feelings be known. It took Queen Anne, in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s to really get the endorsement going, and a fashionable city was created where the aristocracy could pull out the plug.
Renowned architect, John Wood, started the rebuilding of the city in the Palladian style in the stone now known as Bath stone. Richard “Beau” Nash, Master of Ceremonies of the city and arbitrator of high fashion, helped things along by providing well-lit, safe streets and opening the first Pump Room for taking the waters. He organized concerts, balls and gambling, and the Assembly Rooms became the centre of social life. By 1737, reported John Wood the Elder, things had gotten pretty wild, “...Modesty was entirely shut out.... people of both sexes bathing by day and night naked.”
Construction of the Pump Room, completed in 1795, established Bath’s reputation as the “premier resort of frivolity and fashion”. Use of the waters as a cure-all continued right to 1978, when the health scare closed the spas. Ironically, in 1668, the famous British diarist, Pepys, wrote of his reservations about the hygiene of the baths. But, even with the waters closed, the Roman temple, the buried artifacts and the Roman baths still drew people to the city. Even with the waters closed, the Roman temple, the buried artifacts and the Roman baths continued to be a magnet, drawing people to the city in the 1980’s and 90’s. Today over 1million people visit annually.
For approximately 100,000 years more than a million litres of water, enriched with sulphate, chloride, calcium, sodium hydrogen carbonate and silicate, have bubbled up in the centre of Bath. This 10,000-year-old rainfall, falling on the Mendip Hills and resurfacing in Bath, is the only place in Britain where you can bathe in natural, thermal springs.
Bath Tourist Information Centre
UK BA1 1LY
Tel. (0) 1225 47710
Open daily except Christmas and New Year’s.
Bath is located in England’s West Country, 186 kilometres (116 miles) from London. Turn off M4 at junction 18, follow signs on A46 to Bath. Or follow A4 London Road to Bath.
Nearest train station: Bath Spa
Nearest UK airport: Bristol
Attractions in Bath
Roman Baths Museum: Stall St., Tel. (0) 1225 47700. The museum houses a giant stone Medusa head and a bronze head of Minerva, among many other relics.
Bath Abbey: Abbey Church Yard. Begun in 1499 on foundation of 676 church and finished in 1606. A fine example of perpendicular English Gothid architecture. Tel. (0) 1225 422 462. Opening times: mid April to end Oct. Mon-Sat from 9:00am to 6:00pm; Sun. from 1pm-2:30pm and from 4:30pm to 5:30pm; closed Good Friday, Dec. 24, 25, 26. Free admission.
Abbey Heritage Vaults Museum: 13 Kingston Buildings. Open all year 10:00am-4:00pm, closed Sundays. Collection of Saxon and Norman stonework, presentation of the reconstruction of the Norman cathedral.
Pump Room: At the Roman Baths; the meeting place for Catherine and Mr. Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Lunch and tea.
The Royal Crescent: a great arc of 30 terraced houses with 114 Ionic columns, designed by John Wood II. No. 1 Royal Crescent is perfectly restored and contains important furniture, porcelain and glassware. Open 1st March-end Oct. Tuesday-Sundays.
The Circus: Built around 1754, it is a circle of identical houses of pale Bath stone, decorated with columns, a frieze and balustrade.
Assembly Rooms: owned by National Trust. Designed by architect, John Wood the Younger. Built in 1769-71 for evening dances, card playing and visiting. The original set of 9 crystal chandeliers survives. Open daily. Admission free.
Fashion Museum: located in the Assembly Rooms. A collection of 80 women’s gowns and accessories and men’s suits and coats from the Stuart period to the present. Admission charge.
Jane Austen Centre: Gay St. Exhibition that tells the story of Jane Austen’s Bath experience. She paid two long visits here and lived her from 1801-1806. Two novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, are largely set in Bath. Tours from Tourist Information Centre on Tuesdays and Fridays at 11am or from Jane Austen Centre Sunday at 10:30am.
Pulteney Bridge: built in 1769-74 to Robert Adam’s design, it has shops on both sides, domed end pavilions and a Venetian window.
Holburne Museum: Great Pultney St. Tel. (0) 1225 466669. Ancient and modern collection of decorative and fine art, including English and European silver and porcelain, glass, furniture and old master paintings.
Bath Postal Museum: 8 Broad St., Tel. (0) 1225 460 333. The place where the world’s first postage stamp was sent (May 2, 1840). The displays illustrate 4000 years of communication starting with Sumarian clay tablets. Postcards, uniforms, video presentation. Opening times: Jan 2-Feb. 28 from Mon-Sat, 11:00 am to 5:00 pm; March 1-Dec. 31 from Mon-Sat 11:00 am-5pm and on Sun. from 2pm-5pm; closed Dec. 25 and 26, Jan. 1. Admission: L2.90 for adults, L1.20 for children.
The Building of Bath Museum: The Paragon. Tel. (0) 1225 333895. Tells the story of the development of Bath and its architecture. Open mid Feb.-Nov. 30 Tuesday through Sunday 10:30am-5pm.
Sally Lunn House: the oldest house in Bath where Sally Lunn established her bakery that became a favourite of fashionable society.