Bath is a rather funny name for a city, isn’t it? I first came across the city of Bath in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, and later in Jane Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Over the years I “visited Bath” through other stories, essays, films, paintings and photographs, and discovered a deliciously decadent life of leisure and luxury, fashion, intrigue, matchmaking, music, dance, poetry… I further discovered Bath’s history of healing and curing through its mineral rich, hot water springs. In fact, archaeological evidence exists of the waters of Bath being used for healing purposes since pre-Roman times. In 1987, Bath was declared a UNESCO Word Heritage Site.
When I spent a year in London in 2008-2009, Bath was on my list of “must see places before return to India”. And on one beautiful July day in 2009, I set off for a day trip to Bath, organised by London Walks. It was a day that the English, rather mistakenly, call an Indian summer’s day—pleasantly sunny with a cool breeze and intermittent light showers. A lovely day to travel and
have a bath in walk around Bath.
Located in the green and gold Somerset countryside of England, my first impression of Bath, or Bath Spa as the city is called now, was that it did not look or feel like England at all—it had a very European air about the place. The River Avon flows through Bath and it is the first thing that you see when you come out of the station.
Bath receives a lot of rain—compared to other places in the UK—and combined with a high water table, it often gets flooded. To tackle this problem a rather innovative solution was hit upon—the Avon river bed was dug out and a step-like feature built for faster run-off into the sea. In addition to this, sluice gates were also built to lead the flood waters to the sea.
Bath is a beautiful city and it is a pleasure to walk around the city soaking in the sights. One feature which is very distinctive about the city is that the construction stone for all buildings is the same golden coloured stone known as Bath Stone locally, and oolitic limestone in geological parlance. Not only is the whole city built out this stone, its architectural style is also uniformly elegant Georgian.
Two of Bath’s best known structures are the the Circus and the Royal Crescent. The Circus is a set of 3 semi-circular buildings constructed around a traffic circle. It was built in 1760 by the architect John Wood, who was doubly inspired by the Colosseum at Rome and the Stonehenge in Britain. So how did the inspiration get translated in the design of the Circus? The traffic circle is the exact circumference of the Stonehenge and the pillared buildings are inspired by the Colosseum. Wonder what he would have done if he had been inspired by the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids ! The Royal Crescent is a semi-elliptical building built by John Wood, the Younger. The Royal Victoria Garden is spead out in front of the Royal Crescent. Both these icons of Bath are built out of the same golden coloured, oolitic limestone.
Another building that I particularly liked and also built from the same golden coloured stone is the Royal Bath Theatre. I loved the lyres as well as the different expressions of the theatrical masks on the building.
Walking around the city, I see examples of the city’s engagement with its mineral rich, hot water springs. Two of the most prominent ones are the Cross Spa and the Royal Mineral Water Hospital. The Cross Spa is the only spa in Bath that is exclusively meant for its citizens. Don’t you think it is a great for the citizens of Bath to have their own private space, especially with tourists having almost taken over the city?
I am not sure what I expected the Roman Baths to be like, but the rather modest entrance to the Baths do not indicate its spread. The Roman Baths extends under the modern ground level, beneath adjacent streets and squares, so many visitors are surprised when they discover just how big the site really is. I certainly was when I realised that I had been walking over the Roman remains for a large part of my morning.
The Celts, the original inhabitants of Bath, were aware of the healing properties of its waters. They named it place Sulis, after the Celtic Goddess of healing. This knowledge was probably passed on to the Romans when they conquered Britain, and who renamed the city Aquae Sulis in AD 43. They built a grand Roman Bath and a Temple dedicated to the Roman Goddess Minerva.
The Temple of Minerva is thought to be one of the 2 Roman temples in Britain – the other being the Temple of Claudius in Colchester. Today, there are no remains of the original temple except for parts of the pediment of the entrance to Temple, which would have rested on 4 large columns. Displayed as a reconstruction in the Roman Bath Complex, the Temple pediment’s most striking part is the Gorgon’s face. The central image of the Gorgon’s head, which was discovered in 1790, would have down looked from a height of 15 metres on all who approached the Temple. Many people have thought that the Gorgon “looks scary” and “glowers” at the viewer. I personally felt that he has a ‘what am I doing here’ kind of look.
But after the Romans left, the Roman Bath and Temple fell into disrepair, and was slowly forgotten. But the healing properties of the waters of Bath were neverforgotten and, over the centuries, people continued going to Bath seeking cures rheumatism and gout, as well as various skin disorders.
By the beginning of the Georgian era (1714-1830), it was actualy fashionable to go to Bath to “take its waters”. This also helped in the revival of the city and as well as in the uncovering of the forgotten Roman Baths. Today, while visitors can see the Baths, they cannot enter the water, which is maintained at around 32°C.
The Great Hall is the centrepiece of the Roman Baths complex, which also includes the Sacred Spring and the Circular Bath. The latter actually looks like a jacuzzi ! This was once a vaulted hall that rose to a height of 40 metres. Mineral rich, hot water at a temperature of 46°C has been rising here at the rate of 1,170,000 litres every day for thousands of years. The photograph of the Sacred Spring does not show the water was gently bubbling away at places or the steam rising from the water’s surface.
The Great Bath has a recreation of scenes during Roman times with two live models playing the role of a Roman lady and her slave. Looking at their clothes, I wonder if the baths had any clothing etiqutte of regulations for people using the Bath. Our guide said that during Georgian times, the Baths or spas were unisex. There were proper rules for bathing clothes. Women had to wear canvas gowns complete with a ruffled collar. Why canvas, you ask? Because it does not cling to the, er, female form. Men were relatively luckier—they had to wear trousers, full-sleeved shirts and waistcoats. After all, going to the baths was a formal occasion !
Our last halt in Bath, before returning to London, was the Bath Abbey, which is situated very near the Baths. In fact from the terrace of the Great Hall, one can see the Abbey looming above. Three different churches have occupied the Abbey site from the year 757, the first of which was a Saxon Church, followed by a Norman Cathedral in 1090, and then the current Abbey from 1499. Bath Abbey is also known as Lantern Abbey, because of its large windows with plain glass panes. On clear and sunny days, the sun lights up the interiors and in the evenings, when the internal lights are lit, the Abbey gives of light like a lantern.
It was nearly 4.00 by the time we finished and made our way back to the Bath Spa Station. On our way back, our London Walks guide narrated an incident regarding the Royal Victoria Gardens.
Laid out in 1829, this is one of the earliest public parks in England and has remained relatively unchanged since its inauguration. It was officially inaugurated by an 11-year old Princess Victoria, probably on her first official royal duty.
It was a very windy day and when she was about to cut the ribbon at the entrance to the Park, the wind blew her gown up exposing her legs. The gathered crowd laughed and one person shouted out loudly, “Look at the wee Princess’s bandy legs.” Queen Victoria was England’s monarch for over 60 years. She never visited Bath again. Our group was still laughing out aloud when we reached the station in time to see the train for London coming in.
Even after nearly 2 years, the trip still remains fresh in my mind. Roman Baths. Golden colored building stone. Elegant Georgian architecture. European city in England. Playing hide and seek with sudden showers. Cool refreshing breeze. Bath was a revelation, and very different from the places that I have seen so far.
P.S. I did partake of “taking the waters” at Bath. It tasted H.O.R.R.I.B.L.E.