The soothing hot springs of this English city are dynamic conduits of the past and future, writes Jamie Lafferty.
Steeped in Bath - the English city with a hot past and future
In volcanic terms, modern Britain is rather dull. Our calderas are extinct, our tectonic plates long settled. The best chance you have of seeing lava is trapped inside an ugly lamp. The Somerset town of Bath, 150 kilometres south-west of London, is one of the few exceptions. While hardly Krakatoan in its volcanology, here, water still bubbles from the underworld, and while there are one or two other spa towns around Britain, nowhere else is there thermally heated waters - nor quite so many million tourists visiting them every year.
That makes Bath unique, and when added to all that gorgeous Georgian architecture, makes it a city that's extremely easy to love. Bath today is the quintessence of Englishness as imagined by fans of Jane Austen - the author lived here from 1801 to 1806. But simultaneously, Bath represents something pre-England altogether, a proto-Britain at the extreme edge of the Roman Empire. It has few British rivals in terms of its completeness as a grand, aged city - perhaps only Edinburgh has retained so much of its past into the present.
Bath straddles the River Avon, one of four rivers to bear the name in England. It's tempting to blame the Iron Age Brits for this laziness, but actually it was their Roman conquerors who made the mistake. The ancient Celtic word for river was "avon" - every time the invading soldiers asked what the river was called, they kept getting the same answer, so today in Devon, Warwickshire, Hampshire and here in Somerset, there are rivers bearing that name.
Where their translations fell short, the Romans compensated with their entrepreneurship. With a country as volcanic as their own (Pompeii popped in AD79 during the Roman occupation of Britain) the Romans were well used to bathing in hot springs. So while the native Brits revered the steaming water as something divine that they didn't understand, the Romans would have been unsurprised. Within a few years, they had built a temple and created the first of their public baths, using the unfiltered water, sulphur and all, to ease the aches and pains of occupying another country. Conveniently, by the time the 1.2 million daily litres of spa water hit the surface, it is naturally cooled to a hot but not unbearable 46°Celsius.
At the spring, the Celts worshipped a god named Sulis and the Romans - ardent polytheists - were quick to adopt her as their own. Thus the site on which they built became known as Aquae Sulis: the waters of the indigenous god. This all happened within the first few decades of Roman occupation - the baths were in use by AD70, predating Emperor Hadrian's mighty coast-to-coast wall in northern England (the inspiration for The Wall in Game of Thrones) by about 60 years.
Today, the whole site is part of Bath's entry as a Unesco World Heritage site. Over the centuries, the baths have fallen in and out of fashion and been redeveloped every time - as late as the 1970s people were still frolicking in their mineral-rich waters among the Roman structures. Today, the public are forbidden from entering the water at that point; the focus is very much on conservation, with an excellent museum installed in and around the baths to explain their historical importance. Superb audio guides are available in three formats: informative descriptions of the museum's highlights, a personal selection from renowned American travel writer Bill Bryson (Bath is one of his favourite historical attractions) and a special guide for children, where actors voice the parts of various Roman citizens who would likely have visited the baths.
Alongside the eerily modern-looking plumbing, one of the site's highlights is the curse tablets that were found in the water. Individual messages of hate, directed at people the inscriber felt had wronged them, they would have been cast into the water with prayers to Sulis. Yet, most of them relate to trivial matters such as the theft of sandals or robes that occurred while the victim was enjoying the hot water.
While bathing on the original site is forbidden, most of the high-end hotels around town try to compensate with hot spas, though none currently draw from the thermal source. However, that is set to change with the opening of the Gainsborourgh Hotel. It will be based in a redeveloped, grade-two listed Georgian building that was once a college but is currently lying derelict. Backed by Malaysian investors, it will soon be transformed into a luxury hotel. What will make it a rarity is that permission has been granted for the owners to source water from the subterranean pools.
Until that happens, visitors have just one real option to enjoy the waters of Britain's only genuine hot spring: the Thermae Bath Spa. After the municipal baths closed in 1978, residents of Bath were without access to their soothing waters, so when Thermae finally opened, just a block away from the original Roman site in 2006, it filled a gap that had existed for almost 30 years. It wasn't an easy process. The project ran almost four years over schedule and almost three times over budget. At times, the delays and overspend seemed farcical: nesting ducks held things up; the wrong paint was used, costing millions. It's hard to imagine the Romans tolerating such incompetence.
However, seven years down the line, there are near-permanent queues of people trying to get into these public baths. Though the modern facilities couldn't be more different to their Roman forebears (it's a mass of glass and white tiling), the idea is the same: there is no membership required; it is a public space for the people. Considering they are municipal baths, Thermae isn't cheap at £26 (Dh149) for two hours, but for that visitors have access to several floors of bathing facilities, as well as a full range of spa treatments (for extra, variable fees) and a cafe dedicated to healthy eating.
Though it's filtered for impurities and its temperature closely controlled, the water inside is essentially the same that has been flowing for millennia. Its soothing effects are undiminished by time. When I visit, the pools are busy, but the people inside are suitably reverent, allowing everyone to relax together. The real star, though, is the water, which leaves my skin feeling silky smooth, like I've been marinated in some strange potion. The only real complaint to make is that having a limited amount of time in there leaves me clock-watching, willing the hands to stop. The largest pool is inside, but on clear days, the most popular spot is the open-air rooftop bath, which offers views across a maze of Georgian architecture, assembled with the distinct Bath stone that gives much of the city its golden, honey-coloured hue.
To cater for those who aren't so keen on public frolicking - or those who want to have a private party - just outside the main buildings lies the Cross Bath. Though managed by Thermae, it is a stand-alone building that has retained its historic, 250-year-old facade. Here it's possible to shut out the rest of the city and the legions of tourists and have the place entirely to yourself, luxuriating in Roman practices in a Georgian structure with prehistoric water.
IF YOU GO
The flight Etihad Airways flies several times a day from Abu Dhabi to London from approximately Dh3,000 return; the flight takes 6.5 hours. Bath is a further two hours west and is easily reachable by train, bus or car
The hotel The Macdonald Bath Spa Hotel is located halfway up a hill, 10 minutes’ walk from the city centre. This Georgian building has stunning grounds and gardens along with commanding views of the city. Rooms start from £148 (Dh847) per night, including taxes (www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk, 0044 1225 444 424)
The info Thermae Bath Spa (www.thermaebathspa.com; 0044 1225 33 1234), The Hetling Pump Room, Hot Bath Street,Bath, is open all year round except December 25, December 26 and January 1. For more information on Bath, its historic waters and other sights and activities in the area, go to visitbath.co.uk. First-time visitors to the city who want a condensed course in its illustrious history should try the open-top, hop-on, hop-off bus service (www.city-sightseeing.com) with tours starting from £12.50 (Dh72) for adults
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