Bath appeals to the senses
BATH, England — Roman legions marched into a pagan village on the banks of the River Avon almost 2,000 years ago. Obviously, they liked what they saw — they stayed for 400 years. Tourists have been following in the legionnaires’ footsteps ever since, trooping in by the millions annually to sample the varied pleasures and delights of this southwest English city.
As for the Romans, it reminded them of home. Surrounding the small valley were seven hills, just as in Rome and right in the centre were bubbling springs of hot water. The Romans had a passion for bathing in hot water — for then, as it still does, the water in Bath gushes out of the main spring at the rate of 250,000 gallons a day at a constant temperature of 46.5°C (115°F).
For the Roman soldiers, the finest fighting force in the known world at the time, this “posting” was the next best thing to conquering foreign lands and bashing barbarians. They in effect took over an ancient Celtic shrine and by 70 AD had built a large religious/recreational complex to the goddess Minerva.
Roman engineers crafted a magnificent edifice of marble and stone for the sacred spring, complete with hot swiing baths, cold plunging pools, saunas and Turkish baths — just like back home. This was a place of enjoyment, of business, a place to relax, play and pray. Visitors came from all over the far-flung Roman Empire to sample the delights of the hot springs.
The Romans have long since departed. Waves of pagans and Christians, Celtic, Saxon and Norman invaders have passed through over the centuries, and each left their distinctive mark.
Today, Bath is one of England’s most attractive and interesting cities, appealing to many senses — the cultural, the historic, the visual and the culinary. Plus, the born-to-shop brigade can enjoy some of the finest boutiques in England.
Get your camera ready
As well, it’s a photographer’s delight, particularly since the many Georgian buildings of “Bathstone” have been restored over the past decade to their original glistening honey color. A white limestone, when first cut, is pale and then turns a soft honey color. The grime of generations has been sandblasted, leaving most of the downtown area neat and bright. Bath is awash in gardens, flowers and trees, and is an ideal walker’s city. You can stroll from top to bottom in 20 minutes. The Mayor’s Corps of Honorary Guides, unpaid but knowledgeable volunteers, offer free walking tours to the main points of interest (http://www.thecityofbath.co.uk/mayor’s_guides.htm).
It is a city rich in restaurants. There are more eating places, per capita, in Bath than any other town or city in the U.K. — menus ranging from scampi and chips to Italian and French gourmet, plus Chinese and Indian. From the boisterous takeout to the 18th century elegant splendor of the Pump Room with its string trio — you’ll never go hungry in Bath. For history buffs, Bath is almost an overdose. Two thousand years of ruins and artifacts are well-preserved and beautifully displayed. There are museums and galleries by the score, ranging from those dedicated to postage stamps, photography, industrial heritage, crafts, folk art, architecture, bookbinding, geology, even including Sally Lunn’s kitchen museum located in Bath’s oldest house.
Just about everywhere you walk in downtown Bath you bump into antiquity. You can’t miss Bath Abbey, which dominates the city’s skyline and is a history lesson on its own. First a Saxon abbey where Edgar was crowned the first King of England in 973, it survived plunder, pillage and neglect until Henry VIII started a restoration which eventually resulted in the present inspiring structure.
Nearby is the Pulteney Bridge across the River Avon. At first, you don’t realize you’re on a bridge — it looks just like any other street with shops. Constructed in 1769, the Pulteney is a rarity, built for both transport and shoppers, like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Rialto in Venice or the long-gone Old London Bridge. Across the Pulteney are rows of magnificent Georgian Terraces, once home to Jane Austen, William Pitt, Queen Charlotte and William Wilberforce, the man who successfully campaigned against the slave trade.
The elegant Assembly Rooms and the Museum of Costume are must-sees. The costume museum — one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of clothing in the world — is a wonderful display of fashionable dress for men, women and children from the late 16th century to the present day. By the way, a special feature will highlight the museum later this month when the “New Look” opens on Feb. 13. The look, launched by Christian Dior in 1947, includes a variety of dresses by the famous designer, including an original “Dior New Look” suit once owned by Dame Margot Fonteyn, and runs until the end of June. The museum is open daily. (http://www.museumofcostume.co.uk/)
The Assembly Rooms were opened in 1771 to serve as the social centre for Bath’s elite, and the original set of magnificent crystal chandeliers still hang in this splendid example of 18th century decor. The Rooms, open to the public free of charge, consist of a Ball Room, Tea Room and Card Room. “Assemblies” were popular Georgian entertainment — the women would drink tea in one room, the men play cards in another and all would gather for dancing later in the evening.
Don’t miss the music
Bath also is a city of music. The Bath International Music Festival is one of Europe’s finest. Concerts by some of the world’s leading artists and groups — such as Evelyn Glennie, King’s Singers, Gabrieli Consort, Kronos Quartet and Moscow soloists — will be held throughout the city during the 17-day festival. For more information, contact the Bath Festivals office at 2 Church St. Abbey Green, Bath, BA1 1NL, U.K. or visit http://www.bathmusicfest.org.uk/
But back to the baths, the main reason for most to venture to this fair city. It all started around 500 BC, according to one local legend, when a young prince named Bladud was banished from his father’s court because he had leprosy. The prince stumbled on the hot springs, bathed in the steaming waters and was subsequently cured. He then built a Celtic shrine on the site and the springs became a sacred place of healing for ancient Britons. Bladud’s royal line didn’t endure, but his son gained immortality as Shakespeare’s King Lear.
After the Romans left in 410 AD, Aquae Sulis and the temple to Minerva fell into decay. Irish invaders finished it off, and the area became a swampy marsh. And so it remained until the 12th century, when monks from the nearby abbey refurbished the springs as a hot bath and a cure for sickness — but still it didn’t rate high on the guidebooks of the day. A Dr. Jordan wrote in 1631, “The streets are dunghills . . . the baths are beergardens, where both sexes bath promiscuously.”
However, in 1692, Queen Anne paid a visit to the backwater city of slightly more than 3,000 persons. She returned again in 1702 and 1703, and news of her interest got around. If it was good enough for the queen, it was good enough for everybody. Bath became the place to be — whether to take in the baths or just frolic.
It was also the place to gamble. Richard “Beau” Nash became the local gambling kingpin and social czar, ruling the roost for almost 50 years. Although government regulations eventually eliminated his gaming income, Nash made the city a “Temple of Fashion.”
The 18th century boom literally rebuilt Bath, turning the city into a glistening tapestry of grand mansions and buildings. The beehive of construction led to the rediscovering of the forgotten Roman ruins, including the sacred spring and the temple to Minerva. However, not much was done until after World War II when a massive archaeological program began with excavations launched under the Pump Room.
But what about the baths?
The Roman Baths and Museum opened to the public in the 60s, and underwent extensive renovations during the early 80s. The visual presentation of those ancient relics is truly astonishing, and close to a million visitors tour the museum each year, making it the second most popular attraction in Britain boasting a paid admission, after the Tower of London.
Unfortunately, there’s a strict “no bathing” rule in the springs today, and the last public bath closed in 1978 due to a health scare.
But the legend and myth continue. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Roman baths is the fact that the water in that steamy pool started out as rain more than 10,000 years ago when it fell in the Mendip Hills to the south, penetrated deep into the earth where it was warmed by the heat of the earth’s core and then pushed up through the limestone rock. The flow and temperature never varies, in years of drought or heavy rain, in winter or summer.
“Taking the baths” is once again a reality with its $20 million Spa. The health spa is a state-of-the-art engineering feat, adhering to strict health and safety codes while remaining loyal to the city’s architectural splendor.