Is it possible to visit Bath without visiting the place that gave the city its name in the first place? I suppose it is, but I think you’d be missing it out on some great history and architecture if you didn’t go to the Roman Baths so I’d highly recommend a visit to this really great site.
When planning to visit it will pay to put some forethought into when you’d like to visit the baths as they do get quite busy. Even in February there was quite a long line that stretched outside the building during most of the day. I would suggest visiting first thing in the morning when they’ve just opened (there wasn’t a line at all when we were there just before 10:00 to wait for our guided tour), or late in the afternoon near closing time. Of course it’ll also depend on how long you’d like to visit. We spent a little over an hour but I think you could easily spend up to two hours, especially if you listen to more of the audio guide than we did (which is included in the price of admission).
You’ll start the tour on the terrace inside the building, but will then be quickly outside so you can walk around three sides of the Great Bath.
The Terrace of the Great Bath
Personally this was my favourite part of the whole visit. I loved the views! All that architecture, especially with the grand Bath Abbey in the background (as shown in the second photo down), and I was in heaven.
The terrace is lined with Victorian statues of Roman emperors and governors of Britain and they date back to 1894. Although my favourite view of the baths, the terrace really only allows you to see about a quarter of the whole site. Much of the Roman Baths extends under ground level, beneath the streets and squares nearby.
The Great Bath is lined with 45 sheets of lead and filled 1.6 meters deep with hot water from the springs. With little niches all around the sides it would have been ideal for bathing as these would have held benches for the bathers and maybe even some small tables for food and drinks. During Roman times it was actually enclosed under a barrel-vaulted ceiling that was about 40 meters high.
With one look at the green water many people probably wonder why anyone would want to bathe here. It doesn’t look very clean or particularly inviting but back in the day it actually wasn’t so green. With a roof over it most of the sunlight would have been kept out and it wouldn’t have been quite the breeding ground for algae that it is today. Even though it is drained and cleaned frequently, the algae still builds up and gives it the characteristic green hue it has today.
Originally called Aquae Sulis, the town became known as Bath after the Romans moved in and created the firsts baths and temple buildings around the Sacred Spring in 76 A.D. Water temperatures in the Sacred Spring reach 46° C (114°F) and it was here that the spirit of the goddess Sulis Minerva dwelt and was worshipped. The local people also wrote curses about other people, for things like theft, on lead or pewter and threw these in to the Sacred Spring to the goddess for her intervention with the thieves.
The Origins of Roman Bathing
Two traditions merged to create what is known today as the Roman style of bathing. One was the Greek public baths that had individual hip baths in heated rooms and cold water showers in their exercise halls. The other was Italian where the folks had small rooms, like saunas, in their farmhouses. These two styles came together in the 2nd century BC to create a leisurely approach to bathing that could take all afternoon and was an end in itself, not simply a way to get clean.
The Roman Baths include, not only the Great Bath and Sacred Spring, but also heated rooms and cold plunge pools that visitors can view and learn more about how they heated these rooms.
The Pump Room was added on much later, in the 18th century, and includes steps, or “slips”, that allow bathers to enter water from passages below the Pump Room. Today the Pump Room is home to one of Bath’s most elegant places for British dining and the next time we’re in Bath I think afternoon tea should definitely be on the itinerary.
Visitors can also try a drink of the hot spa water at the fountain in the Pump Room. It contains 43 minerals and has been used for healing purposes for two thousand years. No worries though, if you aren’t able to dine at the Pump Room you can still enjoy a cup of the spa water at the end of the tour of the Roman Baths. Some say it tastes terrible but I didn’t think it tasted that horrible. Definitely give it a try if you visit.
I really enjoyed our visit to the Roman Baths and would love to take another tour if we’re back in Bath again. As we visited towards closing time we did rush through it a bit and I didn’t listen to much of the audio guide at all (and it even included one of my favourite authors, Bill Bryson!) so another visit to really take our time I think is in store. Maybe next time we’ll really visit the Roman Baths in depth and then enjoy the (algae-free) baths at the nearby Thermae Bath Spa.