Bath – A Georgian Grandeur
It is a hot day in Bath as the summer sun is putting out all its rays. The city is bathed in sunshine and it looks like the whole world and their wives are all here to enjoy this beautiful city. The square outside Bath Abbey, an imposing ecclesiastical building at the heart of the city, is teeming with graduates from Bath Spa University celebrating their graduation in their academic gowns and mortarboards. They throng into the Abbey for a graduation service amid much jubilation. Hordes of overseas students from Europe gather by the Pump Room and Roman Spa adjacent to the Abbey while their guides are narrating the history of these famous buildings in their own languages. A large entourage of Chinese tourists jostle their way into the square looking a bit odd with their long sleeved shirts and hats and some with parasols to shield from the sun while all the Europeans are wearing as light as possible to soak in the sun rays for a tan. Buskers sing with gusto to compete for attention in the hope of collecting generous donation from the plethora of tourists. Welcome to Bath, the gorgeous Georgian city!
This travel article describes the highlights of the Bath – the Georgian Buildings around the geothermal springs and its unique architecture.
A Steamy Bath
Bath is defined by its healing waters and magnificent Georgian architecture with every corner steeped in history. It is the only entire city in the UK to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city sits on geothermal hot springs that reputedly have curative powers and enhance wellbeing of the mind, body and spirit. According to legend, Prince Bladud, a local Celtic royalty was cured of his skin disease after bathing in the hot water. In gratitude, he founded the city of Bath around the hot springs in 863BC. Its reputation as a source of hot springs attracted the Romans circa AD43 when they settled in the valley of River Avon in Somerset south west of England. They built the city not as a garrison but a sanctuary for rest and relaxation and named the city “Aquae Sulis” (the “waters of Sulis”). Sulis was the goddess of thermal springs worshipped by the Celtic tribes living in the area. In AD70, the Romans built a reservoir around the hot springs followed by a series of sophisticated baths and a temple dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva. As a respect to the Celts, the Roman identified Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, arts and health with Sulis and worshipped the two goddesses as one. After the withdrawal of the Romans in AD410 after nearly 400 years in residence, Aquae Sulis fell into decline but the thermal baths continued to be used throughout the centuries building the water’s reputation as “wonderful and most excellent against disease of the body”. Post Roman, spa baths were built over the ruined Roman Baths and temple complex until it was excavated in the 1790s when the Pump Room was built. Today, mineral rich waters from the hot springs continue to feed the thermal pools at the famous Thermae Bath Spa offering a unique spa experience in UK as residents and visitors to Bath can once again bathe in Britain’s original natural thermal spring water.
The Roman Baths
A visit to Bath is not complete without tracing the footsteps of the Romans in the Roman Baths. It is faithfully restored and a walk through this ancient spa is like travelling back in time to the Roman era. The museum houses various artefacts found during the excavation including a large cache of Roman coins, jewelleries, potteries, weapons and curiously, 130 curse tablets. These are curses inscribed on metal or pewter tablets by people who had been wronged or had lost their properties such as items of clothing stolen at the spa etc to request the goddess Sulis Minerva to punish the culprits, some even naming the culprits or their enemies. It is a kind of ancient voodoo. The Sacred Spring here contains water at a temperature of 46 degrees and rises at a rate of more than 1 million litres everyday from thermal activity in the earth and has been doing so for thousands of years. In Roman times it was believed to be the work of the gods and a great temple was built near the spring dedicated to Sulis Minerva. The Great Bath, a large pool that the Romans filled with hot spring water from the Sacred Spring is 1.6m deep. It was their equivalent of our modern Jacuzzi without the bubbles where they soaked in the hot water for relaxation and curative purposes. Today the water in the Great Bath is green with algae and is not fit for use but it serves as a great relic of the Roman Baths. I find the Roman Bath House section the most interesting with its sophisticated system of spa treatment rooms featuring the “caldarium”, a steam room much like our modern sauna, followed by a soak in the “tepidarium” room of warm water and finished off in the “frigidarium” section to refresh the body. It was said that rich Romans and army generals would have slaves to oil and massage them. The slaves would then use a metal scrapper to scrape the oil off their masters. Some of the slaves believed the used oil from their rich and powerful masters would bring them good fortune and they would store these oils in little jars as good luck charm. Incidentally, the word ‘SPA’ is derived from the Latin phrase “Salus Per Aquam” which means “health through water”. These spa therapies are testimony to the ingenious engineering skills of the Romans and are still in practice in modern spas today.
Above the Roman Baths is the Pump Room, a neo-classical salon built in the 19th century for social functions and today is famous for its afternoon tea in a quintessentially Georgian ambience. A small fountain spouts water from the hot spring and visitors can drink the health-giving water free of charge. Bath is best explored on foot to savour the historic ambience as long as you are not wearing your ‘Jimmy Choo’ killer heels as most of the roads are paved with cobbled stones. The honey coloured Georgian buildings built from Bath stones is a manifestation of its wealth during the Georgian era (1714 – 1837). Just a short stroll from the city centre are some of the most splendid Georgian and Regency architectural marvels. Two of the most outstanding buildings in Bath are The Circus and The Royal Crescent. The Circus is a circle of large townhouses spanning 360 degrees with three entrances into the area. It was designed by John Wood the Elder, a prominent architect in Bath at the time with a vision to create a classical Palladium building inspired by the Coliseum in Rome. One of its famous residents here was Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788), the renowned Georgian portrait and landscape painter. Nearby the splendid vista of a sweeping crescent of a row of thirty terraced houses forms The Royal Crescent creating a gentrified landscape in Bath. It was designed by John Wood the Younger, the son of John Wood the Elder and built between 1767 and 1774. The crescent was sold as facades only and each individual owner would hire an architect to build a house behind the façade to their own specification. Today the crescent houses The Royal Crescent Hotel, a museum, flats and offices. It is popular for film locations among which are Persuasion and Northanger Abbey adapted from Jane Austen’s books. Jane Austen lived in Bath for five years and her fans can visit the Jane Austen Centre, which charts her life in the Regency era. An extensive lawn sprawls in front of the Royal Crescent leading to Royal Victoria Park. Named after Queen Victoria, this 57-acre park offers recreational facilities; children’s play area and a botanical garden. We stroll through the park admiring the stunning summer blooms in full regalia .
Bath attracts over three million visitors a year. Caroline Hook from Bath Tourism Plus says, ““Bath has been attracting tourists for over 2000 years and continues to be one of the most explored and popular cities in Britain by overseas visitors each year. It has some of the finest architectural sights in Europe, and a wonderful mix of ancient and modern history, festivals and world-class hotels.”
This travel article has described the uniqueness of Bath – the buildings around the spa and the surrounds.
Residence in History
Our home for the next few days is a gorgeous Georgian Bath Townhouse within a stone’s throw from all the major attractions. The five-level townhouse is part of the historic Heitling House, reputedly one of the oldest buildings in Bath standing on medieval foundation. It is beautifully restored and sumptuously furnished to the standard of luxury boutique hotel comprising of two double bedrooms and a single room. The Master bedroom is opulently designed with a king size bed sheltered by a canopy. A freestanding silver bathtub is installed near the bed adding a touch of decadence to the room. Each room has it own character and colour scheme. As a keen cook, I love the bright kitchen with a glass roof. In this lovely kitchen I decide to cook Sarawak Laksa and invite Ping Coombes, the Malaysian winner of MasterChef 2014 for lunch. We enjoy a leisurely lunch eating a very Malaysian dish in a historic Georgian Townhouse, a surreal east- meets-west-modern-meets-ancient scenario! Ping, a long time resident of Bath has this to say about this living museum of a city, “I love living in Bath. The city is well maintained and every time I come into the city center I feel like I am on holiday. The city has always been popular with tourists over the years but the regeneration over the last few years has seen more people from the UK and abroad visiting Bath. More interesting restaurants and shops have opened up making Bath a shopping destination as well as a tourist one. I am very lucky to live in a city that is constantly living up to its reputation of being both beautiful and cultural”. The Romans knew a good thing when they saw one. In the words of Julius Caesar, “I came, I saw, I conquered” and so did I.
Further tourist information can be obtained from Bath Tourism Plus
Bath Townhouse is part of YTL Hotels UK MUSE collections.
The City of Bath is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Another Post relating to Bath Spa – An overview
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