December 10 2013 Latest news:
Friday, February 24, 2012
Karen Bowerman visited Bath where the centuries old tradition of thermal bathing is enjoying a revival and the most prestigious address in the city offers a warm welcome
Crouching down, I dipped my hand into the stream of water pouring gently over the curves of a smooth, perspex globe.
The spring ran through my fingers, perfectly clear and beautifully warm: an endless flow of bubbles that, way back in time, had fallen as rain.
“You’re the first to touch that water in 10,000 years,” Charlotte Hanna from Thermae Bath Spa said.
She was showing me round Cross Bath, an intimate open-air pool, set in a small Georgian building close to Bath Abbey. We were standing at the pool’s source – one of three of the city’s naturally occurring hot springs.
The pool forms part of Bath’s spa complex where visitors can bathe in mineral rich waters at a relaxing 33 degrees celsius. Judging from the queues at the entrance, the city’s centuries old tradition of taking the waters is undoubtedly enjoying a revival.
Thermae Bath Spa is a public facility in keeping with the intention of Queen Elizabeth I that Bath’s thermal waters should be accessible to all, in perpetuity.
It means that at times it can get crowded but there are plenty of floors to lose yourself in and the spa is far from your typical public bathing facility.
There are hints of luxury here: a rooftop pool affording views of the skyline, an indoor bath with jets and whirlpools and the small Hot Bath, set aside for private treatments. Here I did my best to relax during an evening session of Watsu - water Shiatsu - where I was told to lie back, close my eyes and relax.
Instead I discovered a temptingly reflective glass ceiling, which meant I found myself constantly checking up on my husband whom, to my irritation, was floating aimlessly in the water: a casebook example of how the treatment’s supposed to be.
Afterwards we headed to the spacious steam rooms infused with lavender and sandalwood. The four circular, glass cubicles are arranged round a futuristic-looking rain shower where slender teenagers in skimpy bikinis gathered and giggled as if waiting to be beamed up by Scottie from Star Trek.
Bath’s hot springs are said to have been discovered by Prince Bladud in 863 BC who believing the waters to have cured him of leprosy, founded the city in gratitude.
But archaeological evidence suggests local tribesmen knew of the pools long before, as early as 8000 BC, when the area with its swamps and steam was seen as sacred, and dedicated to the Celtic goddess Solis.
In 43 AD the Romans built “Aquae Sulis” on the site: a sanctuary dedicated to relaxation, unlike their typical garrison towns.
The story of Aquae Solis, the building of a temple to the goddess Solis/Solis Minerva and the Romans’ love of bathing is told at the Roman Baths Museum.
We visited on a chilly Autumnal afternoon when the steam from the mineral infused water wafted over the uneven flagstones of what’s believed to be the oldest Roman pavement in the UK (at around 2000 years old). It’s now 30 feet below ground level.
As we strolled around, we came across a man in a brown, hessian cloak and intricately laced shoes.
He said his name was Rufus and showed us the finial he was carving for the temple they were building to the goddess. (Luckily we’d just learnt about this, thanks to our audio guides!)
We spoke of what it was like in Roman times, and despite my devilish attempts to ease him into the present day, Rufus remained in character throughout.
He even showed us the wax slab and the stylus he used to write with and offered advice on how to compose an effective curse!
The museum’s collection of curses is fascinating. Here, in great detail, scratched on scraps of pewter, are listed all sorts of crimes for which people expected Solis Minerva to hand out retribution.
Most are extremely petty but the punishments demanded are exceptionally harsh.
We bade Rufus good day and wandered through a labyrinth of excavated bathing rooms, brought to life by projections of almost life-size Roman bathers – some quite scantily clad.
Back in present day Bath my husband and I spent the night at the grandest address in the city, the Royal Crescent hotel, its entrance so discreet I failed to notice the Relais and Chateaux signs either side of the door.
It’s a Georgian delight, with original features, high ceilings and sweeping staircases.
Our room, overlooking the crescent, had tasselled drapes with swags and tails, an enormous chandelier and an open fireplace, with a note from housekeeping, offering to light it.
The back of the hotel opens, unexpectedly, onto a large garden with ornamental hedging and flowerbeds. At the far end are the house’s former coach house and stables.
Today they’re home to the Dower House restaurant and the hotel’s gym and spa, the Bath House, which has a large heated pool, wooden hot tubs and a sauna and steam room surrounded by bamboo and large pebbles.
That evening we dined in the sophisticated surroundings of the restaurant, enjoying slow cooked duck egg with home smoked partridge and autumn truffles, and a ceviche of Cornish mackerel and loc salmon to start.
For our main dishes we chose rump lamb which was beautifully cooked and halibut with a spiced parmesan crust.
As night fell I noticed staff lighting candles in the wrought iron lanterns that lined the path back to the house.
The next morning we explored the garden. At one side, separated by a stonewall, there’s a small pavilion with grand pillars and its own, private pool. This, I was told, was where Johnny Depp once stayed “shutting himself away from it all.”
You could easily shut yourself away at the Royal Crescent, losing yourself in a book in the library or having afternoon tea in the drawing room in front of a large log fire.
But it would be a shame to visit Bath and not to enjoy the city’s famous waters too.
Thermae Bath Spa, Hot Bath Street, Bath BA1 1SJ, thermaebathspa.com
Spa sessions from £25-£55; include steam rooms, rooftop pool and Minerva pool.
Photographs courtesy of Edmund Sumner and Matt Cardy, Thermae Bath Spa.
The Royal Crescent Hotel, 16 Royal Crescent, Bath BA1 2LS, royalcrescent.co.uk Prices from £199 per room per night.