A visit to the charming city of Bath is a must if you’re ever in England. It’s biggest draw, of course, are the Roman-era baths. But the city of Bath itself was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Bath has been a draw for those seeking a relaxing, spa experience as far back as 60 AD, when the Romans built baths and a temple in the valley around the local hot springs. However there is evidence going back even further that the Britons had treated the spring as a shrine long before the Romans invaded. The city of Bath was originally called Aquae Sulis, or “the waters of Sulis,” named after a Celtic goddess. The Romans maintained Sulis’ name after their invasion of the area for two main reasons: they saw similarities to their own goddess Minerva, and it was a way to ingratiate their own religion and beliefs on the Briton people.
On our day trip to Bath from London, we headed straight for the main reason this city remains such a tourist hot-spot:
While the earliest portion of the Roman baths began with a temple around 60 AD, the baths were constantly built upon and expanded for 300 years. Initially the spring was surrounded by a stone chamber lined with lead. In the 2nd Century the springs were covered over by a wooden barrel-vaulted building. And of course, no Roman bath is complete without a caldarium (hot bath), tepidarium (warm bath), and a frigidarium (cold bath).
By the 5th Century, the Romans failed to maintain their hold on the region and withdrew from Britain. The baths fell into disrepair and were lost due to silting. The baths are now below modern-day street level.
People couldn’t live without their healing hot springs for long, though. By the 12th Century a curative bath was built over the King’s Spring reservoir, and the Queen’s Bath was built south of the spring in the 16th Century.
The Roman Baths are now accessed through a concert hall built in 1897. The first thing you see after walking through the main entrance hall is the view of the Great Bath from the terrace:
The water is green due to algae growth from being open to the sunlight. (In the 4th Century the bath was covered, so the water would have been clear.)
The bath is 1.6 meters deep and is lined with 45 sheets of lead. Needless to say, bathing in the water here is no longer allowed as the water is untreated. The lead lining made it waterproof and kept ground water from rising up inside. The bath is fed by the hot spring through a lead box pipe. The piers and lower walls around the baths are Roman, while the columns and walls of the terrace were added in Victorian times.
A closer view of the columns from the main level:
The statues around the terrace were carved in 1894 and represent Roman emperors and governors of Britain. The statues were carved for the opening (or perhaps, re-opening is more precise) of the baths to the public in 1897.
The Sacred Spring overflow allowed excess water to spill into the main drain and into the river Avon:
This is the circular bath, or frigidarium, which was filled with cold water. Normally bathers would go from the warm pool and the hot pool before jumping into the cold pool.
The museum contains some amazing artifacts, such as the remains of this Gorgon’s head relief carved into a pediment. The Gorgon’s Head was thought to be a powerful symbol of the goddess Sulis Minerva.
The Roman Baths underwent a huge renovation in 2011 to improve accessibility as well as its interpretive component.
Just a stone’s throw of the baths is the beautiful Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, more commonly known as Bath Abbey. The Abbey was originally founded in the 7th Century, though the building itself went through numerous stages of destruction, restoration and expansion until finally reaching its current appearance:
The River Avon flows through Bath and under the Pulteney Bridge, which was built in 1774. It was designed with shops which span the bridge on both sides. It’s one of only four bridges in the world to have shops built across it in this manner. The V-shaped weir was created to try to prevent flooding. This was an issue which even plagued the Romans back in the day.
And if you have time and feel peckish, you can stop for lunch or supper at Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House, one of the oldest houses in the city:
The official date of the current house is 1482. However, archaeological excavations uncovered Roman mosaics and pottery showing at least 1800 years of occupation! You can visit the museum in the cellars, which not only showcases the Roman and Medieval foundations, but the original kitchen as well.
The house is named for Sally Lunn, a young French refugee who lived here in the late 1600s. She baked large, round buns which became known as the “Sally Lunn bun”. Many bakers have tried to copy her recipe, but with little success; so this is the place to try the real thing.