A visit to the charming city of Bath is a must if you’re ever in England. Its biggest draw, of course, are the Roman-era baths. Over one million visitors come to Bath each year.
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 used to be 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. The spring was once 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. People stopped using the baths, and they were eventually 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, which was 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. (The bath had a cover in the 4th Century, so the water would have been clear then.)
The bath is 1.6 meters deep and lined with 45 sheets of lead. 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. The columns and walls of the terrace were a Victorian-era addition.
A closer view of the columns from the main level. Today these baths are only for touring, not actual bathing. They don’t treat the water, so it doesn’t meet modern safety codes.
The statues seen below 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 the cold water bath. 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 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.
Although you can’t actually bathe at the ancient Roman Baths, there are several thermal baths operating in the city. You can find a good list of options here.
Just a stone’s throw of the baths is the beautiful Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Established in the 7th Century, it’s more commonly known as Bath Abbey. 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, built in 1774. The bridge houses 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 weir’s V shape prevents 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 also visit the museum in the cellars. It not only showcases the Roman and Medieval foundations, but contains the original kitchen as well.
Sally Lunn was 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.
Visiting Bath from London is fairly straightforward.
Trains run from London’s Paddington station and take approximately 90 minutes to reach Bath Spa station. It’s roughly a 5-10 minute walk from the train station to the Roman baths. For fares and timetables use ‘The Trainline‘ web site.
Bus service between London and Bath runs roughly every 90 minutes, but the trip is much longer than by train. It takes between 3-4 hours to get to Bath from London by coach. You can buy tickets online through the National Express website. While it’s less expensive to travel by coach, the travel time may factor into your transportation decision.
By Tour Operators
You can also visit bath through a tour company, but these tours usually also include other sites, such as Windsor or Stonehenge. These pre-arranged tours also don’t stay long in Bath. So if you want to spend some time exploring the town on your own, you’re better off taking the train or bus independently.