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A feature by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!






The Roman Baths


Bath, Somerset


January, 2013


Prior reading in no way prepares you for the extraordinary experience of visiting the Roman Baths in Bath, formerly known as Aquae Sulis (‘Waters of Sulius’), given the lingering aura and allure of their inherently fascinating and lengthily history. Being there is something of a surreal experience, for during rare moments when one is alone with no modernities in sight, it is easy to feel transported to an altogether different place and time, circa 1st to 4th Century A.D. Becoming unexpectedly acclimatised in this way, however intermittently, is actually the best mode in which to access this ancient site. Despite our TV trained, voyeuristic eyes it’s sometimes difficult to make sense of the Romans casual blending of extreme cleanliness with tawdriness, and even, if circumstances have been represented properly by guides, downright debauchery, with oil and water, worship. As noted, coed, naked bathing was commonplace until Emperor Hadrian (ruler 117 – 138) ordered clothing and, gender divides. But as I’m perpetually TV free by choice, maybe I’m just being old fashioned! 

From the rather opulent Victorian reception hall entrance, one moves on to a glass fronted lookout point in the 18th Century building (designed by John Wood, the elder and John Wood, the younger) affording instantly awing, memorable views of the column flanked Baths, late 19th Century likenesses of Emperors standing tall on the open Terrace above, while green, algaefied waters below suggest scenes which neither time nor modern men could readily comprehend.



Photo by John Couzens



At this navigable level, we are told, there is also a room once peopled with not only those drinking or ‘taking’ the waters, but reveling, oft upper crust gamblers, eating and drinking till dawn – The Georgian Pump room, at which time the Baths were THE place to be, now hired out for, one assumes, more ‘civilised’ functions. Below modern street level, the Sacred Spring, (dubbed The King’s Spring in Medieval times, after Henry I), Roman Temple, Roman bath house and fascinating finds originating from same await us. In Medieval times, the by then, buried Baths were built over with shops and houses, which remained in use through the Georgian period, inadvertently preserving much of the ancient site beneath. The grand opening of the rediscovered Roman Baths took place in 1897, set in motion in 1878, when Victorians living in the premises above the Baths resting place sought to determine the cause of their basements continual flooding with warm waters. It is thought that over time, the Spring’s waters may have somehow, become redirected. When the Baths were discovered, the buildings above them were demolished in aide of excavations. 

These were no ordinary baths, even by Roman standards, for to find such a large, naturally heated mineral spring was miraculous, especially in Britain, where Bath still boasts the only such spring in the country. Though, in enhancing the Greek bathing practices before them, Rome boasted over 900 bath houses at the height of their popularity, around the middle of the 3rd Century AD, only Imperial establishments could have afforded to heat such a large pool as the Great Bath. In fact, the vast Roman Empire featured only two other natural hot springed baths, one near Naples and the other, in Turkey. We were surprised to learn that the Great Bath’s warming pool, 42 degrees C on average, fed by the 46 C Spring nearby, was open for public bathing until the mid 1970’s, at which time health and safety deemed that accumulated contamination could not be dealt with properly for fear of damaging ancient surrounds. When the Baths were rooved in their original state, such problems were non-existent, as organisms grow on the surface of the waters given enough light. Remains of an effective hypocaust heating system, in which furnaces heat rooms from below their floors, without polluting living spaces with smoke, employed in public and private Roman buildings, just one testament to their great engineering skills, can also be seen here.



Remains of hypocaust heating system at the Roman Baths

Photo by John Couzens



Remnants of lead piping alongside the Great Bath, likewise, demonstrate highly developed, Roman plumbing skills. We’re told that on colder winter days steam rises up from the Great Baths in huge, white swirls, heightening their sense of mystery. 

This miraculous, naturally hot mineral Spring enables the flow of about 1.3 million litres of water every day and though the source of its water is sometimes debatable, the most widely accepted theory is that it was originally rain water (up to 10,000 years old) falling on Mendip Hills south of the city, which infiltrated the Carboniferous Limestone there, then flowed northward, beneath North Somerset coal field, when it reached a depth of 2.5 km, where it garners its heat, after which it rises up, through fractures in the Jurassic rock below the city. The Spring water’s chemistry is comprised of highly concentrated calcium and sulphate with similarly enhanced sodium and chloride. 

Inside the comprehensive Museum adjacent to the Great Bath, we get a sense of the scale and importance of the surrounding buildings in the vast complex in terms of their place in society. One intriguing fact follows on from the other, via illuminating placards, audio commentary, and walking tour, their combined insights cascading through your mind like so many colourful fragments. Though the roofs of the Baths, making them the tallest structure of their day are long gone, original wooden one rotted, its replacement’s bricked arches eventually caving in, over the course of the 200 years following the withdrawal of the Roman Empire in Britain circa 410 A. D., they remain a testament to a lost, arguably, golden age. I say golden because the Romans left literacy, roads, bridges and other innovations behind them which were sadly, left to crumble over time, either buried or dismantled. 

The to us, unusual accoutrements and mysteries of the Baths are all splendidly introduced as we are guided along via marvellous displays with accompanying models and oft, 3-D projections enabling knowledgeable, sometimes entertaining glimpses of everyday Roman life, many of which feature life sized actors in ancient dress going about their business in the Bathes and adjoining sites of worship and socialising. Projections and animations serve double duty, nobly filling in the blanks of large, fragmented antiquities, most notably, the glorious front facade of the Temple to Sulius Minerva, from which fourteen pieces of carved stone of varying sizes remain, unearthed in 1790. It is worth noting here that the lone reason we tend to perceive such antiquities in tones of cream and white is because their once colourful painting, which Romans highly favoured has worn off over time! 



Facade of Temple to Sulius Minerva with projections showing missing parts

Photo by John Couzens


Hoping to appease neighbouring Celtic tribesmen on behalf of their favoured goddess, Minerva, the Romans christened the Temple affiliated with their newly claimed Baths, Sulius Minera, giving local goddess, Sulius pride of place, though one wonders if jobs created by their ambitions may have held greater significance. The glorious male kingpin of the Temple’s facade is in amazingly good condition considering its advanced age, and its mammoth, flowing haired countenance incorporates aspects of the snake haired Gorgon of Roman myth, sea god Oceanus and Minerva herself. It is a mesmerising sight, best contemplated from the amphitheatre seating opposite, designed just for that purpose. This hugely evocative face is seen as one of the finest examples of Celtic meets ancient Roman art. 



Detail from facade of Temple to Sulius Minerva

Photo by John Couzens



Without doubt, one of the most incredible sights on the tour, apart from the Baths themselves, is the golden, bronze head of Sulius Minerva, encased in glass at the top of a staircase within the context of the remains of one of the Roman temples in the complex for maximum effect. Such is the presence and grandeur of the sculpture, that virtually everyone in attendance shot photo after photo of it.



Bronze head of Sulius Minerva

Photo by John Couzens


Found by chance by a workman in a trench nearby in 1727, it is thought that the likeness may have been thrown there by marauding Christians ransacking the Temple’s remains, circa 6th Century A.D. It is hoped that further excavations in the area might yield the rest of the statue’s body so that eventually, Sulius Minerva might be displayed in her magnificent entirety. It’s incredible, and very exciting to think that other portions of the Baths complex still exist under the busy streets of the city today. 

Many offerings to Sulius were thrown in the allegedly healing Sacred Spring by the Celts in its outdoor surrounds before the Romans arrived to build their complex of buildings to Sulius Minerva around it. Predominant among these votive offerings were coins, some, from Roman days originating from surprisingly far flung corners of the world, many great examples of which are on show in the Museum here.



Votive coins from the Sacred Spring at the Roman Baths

Photo by John Couzens



There are also many gemstones exhibited, some featuring tiny carvings or engravings, doubtless thrown in by wealthy visitors whose favours had been granted, others of lesser value, which may have slipped out of rings of bathers. However, it is the many, often outlandishly severe curses inscribed on lead strips, most placed after petty thefts of say, a cloak or a pair gloves, which perhaps, shed the most insight of all into the psyches of bathers there at the time. These curses, gems and offerings were not revealed until 1980, when the Spring was first dredged. 



Sacred Spring at the Roman Baths

Photo by John Couzens


U.S. linguist/author/commentator Bill Bryson’s alternative narration, available on the audio guide, offers insightful chuckles via his reflections on some of the complexes highlights: that first striking glimpse of the hot spring’s part hidden underground overflow, the Sacred Spring, which only priests were permitted to approach in ancient times, and the Bath’s adjoining rooms for changing, massage, sweating and freezing (to close the pores) in that order.



Our first glimpse of the Spring's underground overflow

Photo by John Couzens


With our tour guide’s additional factual and oddly amusing comments added in for good measure, our visit was a memorable, unmitigated delight! Among the little known facts unearthed were an in-depth description of the stages of a Roman bath and the types of activities which went on there, from socialising, exercise, eating and drinking, through worship.



The 'Frigidarium' where Roman bathers closed their pores, now a wishing well!

Photo by John Couzens


The Baths were accessible to the masses, as admission was cheap to all, though children were not permitted entry. That said, children are by no means, left out of the equation when visiting the Baths today, for an audio guide, specifically designed for them is lead by various characters who might have frequented the Baths in their heyday. Rarely has history been as fascinating and, enjoyable! But as our wise and witty guide pointed out, architecturally speaking, in the Baths, ‘everything from the shoulders down is antiquity, from the shoulders up, Victorian.’ So once the rubble was cleared during excavations, the Victorians were left with reconstructing choices. A fact which, in no way detracts from the resurrected Baths’ or, Sacred Spring’s ancient ambiance. 

The much lauded Roman Baths, centre-point of largely Georgian Bath, itself a World Heritage City, is a Finalist for the 2012-13 South West Tourism Excellence Awards, with good reason. Given their historic significance and mysterious magnetism, the Baths are well worth visiting and revisiting again and again! If, by chance you feel worn by your absorbing journey through time after your visit, you could spend a relaxing hour or two at nearby Thermae Bath Spa - a throughly modern premises, fueled by pure antiquity...



Great Bath at the Roman Baths

Photo by John Couzens
Roman Baths
Abbey Church Yard
Bath BA1 1LZ
Tel: +44 (0) 1225 477785
Thermae Bath Spa

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