Beautiful houses in Bath.

Beautiful houses in Bath.

Bath's sacred spring at the ancient Roman bath and temple complex in the Somerset city reveals that cleanliness really was next to godliness. 

Healing Prince George

The healing powers of Bath's hot mineral water owe much of its fame to the part it played in a notably unsuccessful treatment of a severe case of asthma. Following his six-week visit to the spa town in 1702, Prince George, Queen Anne's husband, grew so ill she feared he would die. Doctors, turning to other methods, bled him repeatedly, which cannot have been any more effective than 'taking the waters' of Bath, but at least the unfortunate Prince survived.

Despite George's unresponsiveness to the curative water of England's ancient spa town, the precedent of a royal visitor to Bath caught the attention of seemingly everyone, and soon a trip to Bath became the astute thing to do, not only for those seeking a remedy for any of a wide variety of ailments but also for anyone attuned to the customs of genteel society. Almost overnight, what had been a destination for the poor and infirm masses became a fashionable resort town.

The rather dingy medieval facilities in Bath at that time did not suit the tastes of this more discriminating clientele, so the city fathers began a series of improvements that gathered momentum throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, transforming Bath into an architectural showcase. Today, the legacy of this Georgian rebirth has helped earn Bath the designation of World Heritage City--one of only two throughout Great Britain.

Transformation of Bath

The transformation began with the construction of a new Pump Room, where visitors to the baths could taste the water, mingle with other aristocratic pilgrims, and prepare to immerse themselves in the warm spa water. This elegant though modestly scaled building opened in 1706, but by the 1750s it could no longer comfortably accommodate the growing number of visitors who came to the baths.

The Roman bath and temple complex, in Bath, Somerset.

The Roman bath and temple complex, in Bath, Somerset.

In 1755, diggers excavating for the foundation of new bathhouses uncovered a portion of the first such structure ever built on the site--a Roman spa that stood from the 1st to 4th centuries AD. These weren't the first Roman remains found in Bath. In 1727 sewer workers discovered a life-sized head from a statue of the goddess Minerva, whom the Romans believed to be the patron of the sacred hot springs. This discovery caused some excitement, and the head now occupies a glass display case in the excavated Temple Precinct within the Roman Baths Museum--but in 1755 ancient ruins interested the city's architects less than getting on with the task of building more modern facilities, so they covered the baths back over.

The intrusive relics of the Roman occupation seemed to turn up everywhere. When the next major round of improvements began--including an entirely new Pump House designed by Thomas Baldwin--portions of the ancient temple courtyard came to light. The builders removed fragments of stone, but then once again reburied the site under the new building.

The 19th century brought with it a change in outlook. Threats of war and economic depression put an end to the carefree, holiday mood that had characterized journeys to Bath, and the fashion of taking the waters gradually declined. With time, visitors no longer came primarily seeking cures, or high society, but rather to savour the city's architectural and historical gems. Bath's Roman roots comprised an integral part of this heritage.

Rebirth in ancient history

The shift in attention during the century after Baldwin built his Pump House led to dramatic action in 1878, when Major Charles Davis, the city surveyor, investigated a leak in the King's Bath, a pool of Norman vintage, and found the source of the mineral water, the Romans' 'sacred spring', beneath the Norman floor.

Unlike his predecessors, Davis did not rebury his find. Energized by his discovery, he took up the floor of the King's Bath and dug through the rubble that filled the reservoir the Romans had built to control the spring. His finds sparked tremendous interest in Bath's ancient history, and he eventually convinced the city to buy the modern residential buildings standing over the Roman bath complex and demolish them, so that the ruins could be thoroughly excavated.

Because of Davis's powers of persuasion, today's visitors to Bath are not able to visit a house where the painter Thomas Gainsborough once lived, just adjacent to, and above, the Roman Great Bath. What Davis found beneath the 19th-century city, however, far outweighed what modern visitors lost. The archaeological work he began has continued periodically right down through the late 20th century, revealing a lost Roman world beneath the modern town.

Were the Romans still around today, they might think their goddess Minerva, whom they worshipped at the temple adjoining the hot springs, had been rather ungrateful, for when the Empire collapsed and the Romans abandoned the spa, the very same spring that had attracted them to Bath in the first place, slowly began to erase all visible traces of their long presence there? The unattended Roman reservoir silted up, blocking the drainage system and eventually burying the entire area under mud. Today the remains of the original bathhouses lie about six meters beneath the streets and shops of modern Bath.

Davis removed this layer of earth from over the Great Bath and visitors can now peer down from a late 19th century colonnaded terrace onto the Roman pavement surrounding the bath itself. Columns and the vaulted roof they once supported both vanished long ago, but the blocks of stone they stood on remain in place. Murky green water fills the pool, and placards advise curious visitors not to taste the untreated water in the bath, but rather to wait until they enter the Pump Room. The water's unusual hue, caused by algae, provides a more than adequate deterrent, and, during my visit at least, no one seemed tempted to disobey the prohibition.

Sacred waters

The water in the Great Bath came directly from the sacred spring through a lead-lined culvert. Remarkably, the system still functions perfectly today. Another lead pipe, no longer in use, lies exposed in a groove in the pavement alongside the bath, giving visitors a glimpse of state-of-the-art 1st-century plumbing.

The Romans altered the layout of the complex several times throughout the three centuries of its use. Originally, this pipe fed a fountain and two smaller baths to the east of the Great Bath. From these, drains carried the run-off to the River Avon. Apparently, this arrangement caused some problems. When the water level in the Avon rose, water backed up through the drains and flooded the baths. In consequence, the Romans filled in the easternmost bath and raised the level of the floor to create a hypocaust, an open space beneath the room where heated air provided a kind of Roman precursor to modern baseboard heating, allowing the room above to be used as a Turkish bath. Many of the brick piles that supported the raised floor still stand, as they do in more perfect fashion in another similar room in the western baths.

The pipework linking all these baths led back to a single source, the sacred healing spring dedicated to the goddess Minerva. In so dedicating the spring, the Romans followed the tradition of the native Celtic inhabitants of the region, who believed the water came from Sulis, a god with great healing and martial prowess. The Romans also had a god with identical talents and reasoned that Sulis and Minerva must be one and the same.

When the Romans arrived in Britain, the sacred spring amounted to no more than a muddy bog. Their engineers erected a two-meter-high wall of lead-lined stone around the spring to form a reservoir to contain the 250,000 gallons that gush up out of the ground each day. Although the vaulted ceiling they built over the spring collapsed long ago, and 18th and 19th-century masonry now surround it, the spring itself must still look much as it did when pilgrims travelled here from throughout the Empire. The murky water bubbles as gasses percolate to the surface. Vapour rises from the water, which flows out of the earth at a temperature of 46 degrees Celsius. It really does look vaguely supernatural.

The sacred spring became the hub of the Roman bath and temple complex. The bathhouses stood to the south, and the temple precinct with its sacrificial altar flanked it on the north. While providing the water for the baths, the spring itself more properly belonged to the religious half of the site. The Romans allowed no bathing in the spring; rather, it was a site at which to appeal to Sulis Minerva for help and to offer gifts in return for her favour.

Pilgrims to Bath accomplished both missions in a fashion that modern archaeologists must find particularly fortuitous--they threw objects into the spring. The museum contains a wide variety of these artefacts, recovered for the most part when investigators probed the reservoir in 1979 and 1980. Their finds tell us a lot about the cult of Sulis Minerva. Coins found in the water help to pinpoint the dates during which the baths were in use. The oldest, in fact, are Celtic, dating back to a time before the Roman invasion. Gift offerings also took the form of precious stones, jewellery, and pewter cups.

But the most unusual objects drawn from the spring reveal that not everyone who came here did so in search of a blessing. Several squares of sheet lead found in the mud bear inscribed appeals to Sulis Minerva to curse the often unknown perpetrator of some minor offense. One inscription gave rise to speculation about the perverted pagan customs that seem to have been practiced during the Roman occupation: 'May he who carried off Vilbia from me become as liquid as the water. May she who so obscenely ate her lose the power of speech. . . .' Things are not always what they seem, however, and researchers investigating the previously unknown word 'Vilbia,' concluded that it was not a person's name, but an object--possibly a napkin. If so, the victim's curse certainly would have been more than adequate retribution for such an odd but trivial crime.

Visiting the Roman baths

Citizens wishing to make similar appeals to Sulis Minerva could enter the building enclosing the sacred spring by passing through a portal that connected it to the temple courtyard. This portion of the Roman remains first came to light when builders prepared the foundation for Thomas Baldwin's late 18th century Pump Room. Thorough excavation, however, waited until 1981.

Pedestrian traffic now courses through a portion of the Temple Precinct once again, for the first time in 16 centuries. It takes some imagination to conjure up an image of what this crypt-like chamber must have looked like in its hey-day, when the Roman paving stones underfoot lay exposed to bright sunlight, rather than contemporary track lighting, and views across the courtyard did not include the pillars and posts necessary to support the foundations of later buildings.

At one end of the excavated Temple Precinct, in a spot that would have been at the centre of the newly built facility, lie the remains of the steps that led to the temple. This shrine housed sacred relics and a statue of the spring's patron goddess--which is missing except for the head found by the sewer workers. The building itself suffered a similar fate. High above the temple steps, four tall columns once supported an intricately carved pediment. Archaeologists have recovered enough fragments of the pediment to attempt a reconstruction, which now adorns a wall elsewhere in the museum.

In its intended position at the opposite end of the temple, precinct stands a partial reconstruction, using some of the original stone blocks, of the sacrificial altar that formed the second focal point of the courtyard. The Romans would have used this altar for animal sacrifices only. Their revulsion over the Druidic practice of human sacrifice led to a campaign to exterminate the native British priestly order.

Across from the altar, the steps at the foot of the doorway leading to the sacred spring remain, but the passageway and the wall into which it was set have long since crumbled into ruin. The steps themselves show little sign of the centuries of neglect that have claimed the rest of the precinct; instead, they bear the mark of a different sort of decay--one that speaks of constant use. The soles of countless thousands of shoes, worn by religious devotees passing into and out of the sacred spring, wore a deep groove in the soft stone.

The spring ultimately proved more enduring than Rome. After nearly three centuries of heavy use, the Romans finally abandoned the site when the Western Empire collapsed. Eventually, the arched roof over the sacred spring collapsed too, filling the reservoir with rubble. The bath complex became more and more wild and overgrown, but some traces of it must still have been visible until at least the 8th century when a Christian monk wrote: 'Wondrous is this masonry, shattered by the Fates. The fortifications have given way, the buildings raised by giants are crumbling.'

8th century Bath

The 8th-century monastery's establishment marked Bath's rebirth, but the resurrection proceeded slowly. In the 12th century, a Norman church replaced the older buildings and included a new 'King's Bath', built directly over the hot spring, utilizing the remaining portions of the old Roman walls. This Bath, along with a smaller 'Queen's Bath', added in 1576, drew large crowds of sick, naked bathers, and it is very improbable that Prince George, consort to the Queen, would have rubbed shoulders with this motley crowd when he came to take the waters in 1702. Most likely, he simply drank the prescribed amount of spa water--typically anywhere from a pint to a gallon per day--in private, or possibly he had it administered via an enema.

Visitors to Bath can still taste the water and decide for themselves which of these two options is least objectionable. The most diplomatic comment many visitors find they can make about the flavour of Bath's curative waters is that it's not as bad as they feared. Jane Glaser of Sulis Guides, who first introduced me to Bath, compared it favourably to the water found at other spa towns in Britain, so maybe the secret to appreciating the spring water is to visit those sites first, in order to lower your expectations. But after all, patients have complained for centuries about the bad taste of their medicine, and the waters of Bath are among the most ancient of tonics.

The Roman Baths Museum

The Roman Baths Museum is open daily year-round, except Christmas Day and Boxing Day. From April through September, the museum is open from 9 a.m to 5.30 p.m. From October through March, the museum is open from 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 10.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Entry costs £5 for adults and seniors, and £3 for children. Group rates are available. Tel: 01225 477785.

Getting there

Bath lies about 104 miles from London on the A46. Trains depart regularly for Bath from London's Paddington Station. British Airways offers passengers a convenient way to combine a visit to Bath with a stay in London. The Heritage City is the destination of one of the airline's Day Trip packages. Passengers depart from Paddington Station at 8.15 a.m. and spend the day touring Bath aboard an open-top, double-decker bus. The return trip reaches London by 6.30 p.m., in time for an evening of shopping, theatre, or sightseeing. The cost for adults is $61; children travel for $29. For details, call British Airways at 800-AIRWAYS.


The Royal Crescent Hotel occupies two of the thirty adjoining houses that comprise Bath's famous architectural masterpiece, the Royal Crescent. Each of the 42 guest rooms has been individually furnished and has its own special character. Rates start at £98 for a single room and £165 for a double. Rates include VAT and a morning newspaper. Tel: 01225 319090.

The Bath Spa Hotel is Bath's only five-star hotel. It stands amid seven acres of gardens close to the city centre. Single rooms start at £109, doubles from £129. Tel: 01225 444424.

Pratt's Hotel is well suited in the city center, making it a convenient base for shopping and sightseeing. Single rooms start at £45; double rooms at £60. Prices include VAT and English breakfast. Tel: 01225 448807.

Bloomfield House is an elegant B&B in the Georgian house of one of Bath's former mayors. Rates for a single room starts at £35. Double rooms begin at £50. Tel: 01225 420105.


The Pump Room, standing above the Roman Baths, provides visitors with a chance to savour the elegance and refinement of high Georgian society, and to sample Bath's hot mineral water (free to visitors with disabilities). Enjoy morning coffee, lunch, or afternoon tea to the music of the Pump Room Trio. Open daily April through September from 9 a.m to 6 p.m, and October through March from 9.30 (10.30 on Sundays) to 5 p.m. The last admission is a half-hour before closing. Tel: 01225 461111.

The Olive Tree Restaurant at the Queensbury Hotel, renowned for it good food and wine selection, is an elegant stop close to many of Bath's historic sites. Tel: 01225 447928.

The Canary is an intimate, award-winning restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. Located within an easy walk of the Roman Baths Museum, the Canary's 'Supper Walks'--dinner followed by a guided walk through the city--make this an even more logical place to enjoy your evening meal. (Supper Walks are offered from the end of May to the end of September.) Tel: 01225 424846.


Bath truly deserves the designation of World Heritage City. It combines ancient history with magnificent Georgian architecture, and offers visitors plenty of museums to browse: the Postal Museum, the Book Museum, and even the History of Jeans Museum! Union Street, Stall Street, and Southgate comprise the main shopping district, but you'll find many interesting antiquarian booksellers and antique shops on George Street, London Street, Bartlett Street, and elsewhere throughout the city. Sulis Guides can enhance your enjoyment and understanding of Bath's historic sites by providing multilingual private tour guides. For more information, contact Sulis Guides at 2 Lansdown Terrace, Weston, Bath BA1 4BR. Tel: 01225 429681.

Bath Abbey, just a few steps away from the entrance to the Roman Baths Museum, was once called 'The Lantern of the West', because of its huge glass celestory windows. The Abbey's 600 memorials include a monument to Beau Nash, the first citizen of the city during the 18th century, and a stone commemorating Queen Elizabeth II's visit in 1973. The Heritage Vaults, housing an exhibit documenting the abbey's history, are open daily except Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Last entry is at 3.30 p.m. Admission costs £2 for adults and £1 for seniors, children, and students.

Number 1, Royal Crescent, Bath was the first house completed on John Wood's Royal Crescent and has been transformed into a museum that re-creates how this upper-class residence might have been furnished upon its completion in the mid-18th century.

The Victoria Art Gallery exhibits a collection of 18th and 19th-century paintings by Turner, Gainsborough, and others, along with more recent works by 20th-century artists. The gallery also houses collections of decorative art, including porcelain, glass, and ceramic objects. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Admission free. Tel: 01225 477772.

When visiting the Royal Crescent Hotel occupies the central two buildings of Bath's historic Royal Crescent.

* Originally published in September 1996.