“Hi, would you like to participate …”
“Hello, I’m researching the audio guides and …”
“Hi, would you like to take part in a survey about the audio guides here at the Roman Baths? You would? Great!”
Over a period of months, I accosted hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors to the Roman Baths Museum with a spiel like this. The vast majority would ignore me. Others would say no or, in a more extreme reaction to the question, would look at me as if I had asked them to sacrifice their firstborn. However, a few would stop and share their thoughts, what worked well for them, and what didn’t; this became the backbone of my PhD research. As a result, it was a museum I got to know intimately.
A few years later I moved to the city of Bath to be with MrElaineous. We would pop out to the Theatre Royal to grab last minute tickets for a tenner, shop and dine along Milsom Street and the small alleyways and winding side streets, and enjoy stunning skyline views from the hillside near our house. In this case, familiarity didn’t breed contempt, but rather blindness. Like the fish who doesn’t know it’s in water, it became easy to take the architecture, history, quirky shops, and numerous events and activities that were on our doorstep for granted. After all, I was constantly surrounded by it.
However, having recently had the opportunity to catch up in Bath with a friend from the US helped me see the city again with fresh eyes, and was a reminder of why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Centre—I simply can’t think of anywhere else that crams as much heritage into such a small space.
The perfect weather didn’t hurt either. It was a beautiful autumn day, with morning temperatures cold enough to remind you that winter was on the way, but without a cloud in the sky. Much of Bath is built from the eponymous Bath stone, a honey-coloured building material that is quarried locally. On a grey, overcast day you might not think there’s anything special to it but, when the sun is out, it catches the light and practically glows. This is the first thing visitors tend to notice but once you dig just a little bit deeper, it’s incredible what you find below the surface of the city.
Like the origin of Bath itself: legend tells of Bladud, an ancient British prince who caught leprosy. He ran away from court and became a swineherd, tending pigs in the region. He noticed that the pigs that covered themselves with the warm mud were free from skin ailments. He did likewise and—hey presto—his leprosy was cured and he could take his rightful place on the throne.
The actual history of the baths is far more interesting and spans millennia. Rain that fell thousands of years ago on the Mendip Hills filters through limestone and is carried nearly 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) underground. Here the water is heated by geothermal pressure before finding its way out through the cracks in the limestone, bubbling to the surface as hot springs with a flow of over one million litres a day and a temperature of over 40 C (104 F).
This did not go unnoticed by the ancient Britons, who dedicated the area to Sulis, a goddess reputed to have healing powers. The Romans, known to be fond of a good bath themselves, arrived in 43 AD. A natural hot spring was the perfect location to construct a bathing complex around, and over time temples, a gymnasium, and a thriving community developed. There was even underfloor heating in the form of hypocausts: stacked bricks that allowed heat to flow between them and warm the tiled floor above.
The area became known as Aquae Sulis—the Water of Sulis—and Sulis became conflated with the Roman goddess Minerva, who was associated with wisdom, medicine, artistic endeavours, and, somewhat incongruously, warfare. This led to the worship of a hybrid goddess, Sulis Minerva. Offerings of coins, gemstones, and utensils have been found in the Sacred Spring, likely to curry favour with the goddess on behalf of the petitioner or as thanks for an answered prayer. However, some of my favourite finds are slightly less holy.
Lead curse tablets show that the desire for revenge was a motivating factor for worship: the supplicant would write who should be cursed, for what, and potentially what form the curse should take on a small piece of lead, roll it up, and toss it into the spring for Sulis Minerva to mete out the desired punishment.
Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty [my] bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrong, whether man or woman or whether slave or free unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.
Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds and eyes in the goddess’ temple.
…so long as someone, whether slave or free, keeps silent or knows anything about it, he may be accursed in (his) blood, and eyes and every limb and even have all (his) intestines quite eaten away if he has stolen the ring or been privy (to the theft).
I find hearing from ancient people in their own words helps bring the past to life better than any modern interpretation ever could. And the lesson is clear: never cross a Roman!
Although the baths fell into decline after the Romans left in the 5th century AD, they would be given a second life over a millennium later. In the 18th century, “taking the waters” became fashionable and the great and the good—as well as the desperately ill—flocked to Bath, seeking a cure for everything from gout to infertility to paralysis. Water could be prescribed to be imbibed, soaked in, or a combination of the two.
The museum itself takes you through this history and, no matter how many times I’ve been there, I never grow tired of the atmosphere or chance to see some incredible artefacts. Indeed, it almost felt like I was introducing one friend to another! Over the past decade since I conducted my PhD research, changes have been made to make the site even more accessible to visitors through new displays and interpretative techniques; if you’re interested in going yourself, I recommend visiting first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds, and give yourself a few hours to immerse in the history and take in the sights.
Next to the Roman Baths sits Bath Abbey. Although the land was used for Christian worship for centuries, the present building was completed in the early 17th century and is rather distinctive. One of the first signs that it is slightly different from the typical church or cathedral is the Jacob’s Ladder decoration on the front. Most churches, such as the medieval Salisbury cathedral, depict saints, Biblical heroes, and angels in very formal poses, but Bath shows angels climbing up and down a ladder between heaven and earth.
Step inside and the differences continue: due to the pale stone and mainly clear windows, Bath Abbey feels light and airy. Adding to this feeling of weightlessness is the Abbey’s fan vaulting, which is a relatively late addition added by architect Sir George Gilbert Scott in the mid-19th century to fulfil his vision of a Gothic structure. During our visit they were preparing for TEDx Bath, and I love this contemporary use of such an iconic Bath monument. It is also a useful reminder that just because a building is historic, it doesn’t mean it’s static.
From the Abbey we walked through the Parade Gardens and along the River Avon. When I lived in Bath, this was an area I seldom visited, but it provides a different perspective on familiar Bath landmarks, like the weir. This horseshoe-shaped structure has its origins in the early 17th century to help prevent flooding, and today it still helps to keep the water levels in check (while also serving as a boundary for the river boats!).
Just above the weir is the picturesque Pulteney Bridge, one of only four bridges in the world that still have shops on it (if you’re curious, the others are the Ponte Vecchio in Florence; Venice’s Rialto Bridge; and Krämerbrücke in Erfurt, Germany). Pulteney Bridge was constructed in the 1770s by the Pulteney family to connect the city centre with their new development of Great Pulteney Street. The Palladian design is by Robert Adams, one of the 18th century’s leading architects. Although a number of tweaks have been made in the intervening years, it still has to be one of the prettiest sites in Bath.
Another landmark that seemed to crop up in many of my photos is the former Empire Hotel, which was built in 1901. MrElaineous and I went on many dates in the restaurant on the ground floor, so it has happy memories for me. Clearly having a lot of time on his hands, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote a 46-volume, county-by-county architecture guide called “The Buildings of England”, and in it he describes the hotel as a “monstrosity and an unbelievable piece of pompous architecture”. He’s entitled to his opinion, but I’m still rather fond of it!
So far on our meanderings through Bath, my friend and I had kept to my mental itinerary of things to see and do, but we veered slightly off course and headed to the local rugby ground to see a flock of owls. The goddess Minerva (Athena to the Greeks) is often shown with an owl—one of the many reasons the bird is associated with wisdom—and this summer the Minerva’s Owls public art trail could be found throughout Bath, following in the trotters of King Bladud’s pigs. Each owl is decorated in a different style and it was great fun to see the enormous talent and creativity on display; follow this link to check them out yourself and let me know your favourite! With perfect timing, we managed to catch the owls all in one place before they flew the coop at auction.
From contemporary art to Georgian architecture, we headed along Great Pulteney Street and up the hill to see two of Bath’s iconic buildings, the Circus and the Royal Crescent. The former was built by John Wood the Elder in the mid-18th century, and has nothing to do with elephants, clowns, or the big top. Instead, circus comes from the Latin word for ring or circle, and that’s exactly how these townhouses are constructed. There are three sets of buildings that form a circle around a central green space, and each frontage is decorated with the neoclassical designs that were popular in the Georgian period.
Just down the street from the Circus is Bath’s splendid Royal Crescent. This was constructed by John Wood the Younger between 1767 and 1774. At that time it consisted of 30 individual townhouses in the Palladian style, which takes its name from designs developed in the 16th century by Italian architect Andrea Palladio. Today, 10 of the townhouses have been left as full-size homes and 18 are divided into flats. The remaining two houses can actually be visited: one is a museum and the other is the Royal Crescent Hotel. MrElaineous and I stayed there once to celebrate jumping through one of my immigration hoops; I admit to not being very impressed by our room, but the swimming pool—heated by Bath’s hot springs—is top notch!
As my friend and I headed back toward the city centre, we popped into the Jane Austen Centre. While the building itself has nothing to do with Jane, she did live in Bath at different points in her life, reflected in both the highs and lows of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Visiting the Centre is an opportunity to learn a bit more about Jane the person, and it’s something I would recommend to anyone who is a fan of her work because it helps put her writing into context. It is also useful if you’re looking for any “I ❤ Darcy” souvenirs.
We wrapped up the day at Sally Lunn’s Restaurant, which, with a construction date of approximately 1482, bills itself as one of the oldest houses in Bath. According to legend, Huguenot refugee Solange Luyon escaped persecution in France, settling in Bath in the late 17th century. She is credited with bringing a form of French brioche to Georgian England, yet her French name was mispronounced by colleagues, giving rise to the “Sally Lunn bunn”.
Today, Sally Lunn’s offers local food based on authentic historic menus and remains the home of this very special baked good (the recipe is a closely guarded secret!). In a masterstroke of PR, this is described as part bun, part bread, and part cake; doesn’t this description make you want to run out and try one?
The bun is generally eaten with a knife and fork but there are no fixed rules. Most guests enjoy their bun with a huge smile on their face.
I can vouch that they are very tasty! Beyond that, it was an excellent venue to relax and reflect on the day. For starters, I was very grateful to have had an opportunity to catch up with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in almost two decades, as well as fall in love all over again with a city that has played such a large role in my life. After all, Bath is where MrElaineous and I spent our first year of marriage—and it’s the place that always causes me to say “Yes” if anyone asks me to fill out a survey.