The rooftop swimming-pool of the Thermae Bath Spa, a complex built on the site of the original Roman Bath which itself stood on a site used since at least 8,000 BCE. Having closed in 1978, the spa re-opened in 2008 after a major restoration project that cost around £40million.
Bath – Long Read

The most fashionable town in England

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Bath – Long Read The most fashionable town in England

Hello Bath, where around 60AD the Romans built a temple beside some hot springs on the River Avon that grew into the largest spa outside Rome itself. Nestling in a green valley in the Somerset Hills, built out of stone from the same hills, it was reborn by the time of Jane Austen as the most fashionable town in England and remains one of its biggest attractions.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

Every guidebook calls Bath “honey-colored”. At sunrise and sunset it may be, but on a dull English day the natural color of the stone from which it is made is closer to a pale ivory. Still warmer than the gray granite and much more refined than the red brick of many other townscapes, it gives the city a pleasing aspect that delights visitors.

“Bath is not a planned city but a series of developments,” says architect Nick Jones, who has lived here for 30 years. Originally from Wales, he still has that country’s passion for rugby, and a stocky build to match, though these days his allegiance is to Bath Rugby Club. “What brings the city together is its homogeneity, because of the consistent use of Bath Stone and similar classical styles of architecture. It is the color and the style.” Nick says that, because of its stone, Bath’s origins go back millions of years. But the usual story of its birth is not as old as that.

Every city has its creation myth but Bath’s literally bubbles out of the rock. A legend tells how Prince Bladud, the father of King Lear, bathed here around 900BCE to be cured of leprosy – a catch-all name for complaints such as eczema in those days – after noting how pigs who wallowed in the warm mud stayed free of skin infections. There is no evidence such a king ever existed but the hot springs, the only ones in Britain, certainly do.

Attracting visitors from the rest of Roman Europe

Anyone who has had a long hot soak after a stress-filled day knows that its effects are more than skin deep. The Ancient Romans recognized this spiritual side when they built a temple to the Celtic goddess Sulis as well as their own goddess Minerva beside these springs on the River Avon in around 60AD, soon after their invasion of Britain. In a diplomatic move aimed at the native Celtic tribes, they called their new settlement Aquae Sulis – the “waters of Sulis” – and built an impressive complex of hot and cold baths and sweat rooms.

It became the largest spa outside Rome, attracting visitors from the rest of Europe who left evidence in the form of prayers and curses inscribed on thin pewter, then folded and thrown into the waters. Almost 2,000 years later, Bath still attracts visitors in their many thousands – many from even further afield.

You can still visit those Roman Baths, a lead-lined tank of green water replenished daily by the original plumbing after nearly 2,000 years. Indeed, it is the biggest visitor attraction in Britain outside the well-known sights of London. I join a line that shuffles through the baths and onsite museum, then walk the cobbled streets to take in the city’s other sights. Bath is remarkably compact, easy to stroll around in a few hours, but surprisingly hilly and the surrounding topography has forced it into a narrow valley.

“You must not underestimate the power of the landscape in Bath’s success as a destination for visitors,” says Nick. “Look all around and you see wonderful hills. The town nestles in the bosom of its green valley with a nice river going through it and there are plenty of walks and rides in the fresh air. It grew during a time when there was a new-found interest in what came to be known as the picturesque.”

Water that fell as rain 10,000 years ago in those Somerset hills comes to the surface heated to body temperature by its passage deep beneath the earth. On its long subterranean journey it is suffused with minerals that give it a reputation for boosting health. As the Roman Empire started to fold inwards in the 5th century, the city fell into ruin, but the steaming waters retained their reputation. In 1138, a writer described how “springs supply waters, heated not by human skill or art, from deep in the bowels of the earth… From all over England sick people come to wash away their infirmities in the healing waters.”

Bathing was resorted to merely for amusement

This sense of bathing as a way of curing ills, rather than hygiene, persisted for many years. In the 17th century, Sir William Temple wrote that “bathing was scarcely practised at all in England on the score of health; and that if resorted to it was merely for amusement”. In 1687, King James II’s wife, Mary of Modena drank the waters as a cure for her infertility – and subsequently produced a male heir. The town’s Cross Bath where she bathed was renamed for the ornate Melfort Cross given to mark this event. The tiny building seems barely large enough to contain all the history sparked off by the battle of succession that followed, leading to the replacement of the Catholic king by the Protestant William of Orange imported from Europe.

Despite the political turmoil, Bath enjoyed growing fame after this sensational advert for its powers. In 1707, Dr William Oliver published his “Practical Dissertation on Bath Water”, which claimed drinking it would cure a long list of ailments. His book was “designed for the use of the nobility, gentry etc” and the upper classes started coming to Bath in their droves, ushering in an era of grandeur whose memory the city still basks in today.

Between 1700 and 1800 the population increased tenfold and by 1801, when novelist Jane Austen came to live here, the town had 33,000 inhabitants and was the most fashionable in England. In reality, the city was already in decline, but the fans of Austen who parade the streets in costumes from her time still see it as a Golden Age.

As I walk into the Grand Pump Room with its elegant crystal chandeliers, I find it very easy to conjure up the romantic image. The fine décor, classical music trio and smartly turned out staff make me feel very under-dressed, but most of the other customers are in similar casual clothes. Despite its name, the Pump Room is not filled with antique machinery but tables of visitors enjoying elegant afternoon tea. Sugar spoons clink against fine china, plates are stacked high with delicate sandwiches and sugary cakes, and camera flashes pop. Health seems the farthest thing from anyone’s mind and paying with my credit card is oddly alien to the old world atmosphere. It turns out even the dining tables are out of place.

It is very hot and tastes very mineral

“The Pump Room would originally have been unfurnished,” says teacher Helen Arthur, another local with a deep interest in the past. “It allowed visitors to drink the waters – which was done before breakfast – while walking around, sheltered from the chill of early morning while enjoying some of the gentle exercise recommended by their doctor.”

You can still drink the waters here today, pumped up from deep beneath the earth and with the strong taste of boiled coins. If things that taste bad are good for you, then I have no doubt it is of great benefit. No wonder that mingling in the Pump Room became an end in itself, as Jane Austen notes in “Northanger Abbey” when her ladies “walked together, noticing every new face and almost every new bonnet”.

Writing in 1801, Canadian visitor William Connor Sydney also described the experience: “I went to the Pump Room, which is very large and grand. On one side is the pump, where a woman stands and distributes old King Bladud’s waters to old and young, sick and ill. I had a glass; it is very hot and tastes very mineral. At one end of the room is an orchestra, where bands of music are continually playing. The company at the same time walking up and down in crowds, not minding the music, but buzzing like merchants on ‘change.”

Well, modern gyms show most of us prefer socializing and checking out other people to exercising – even if the water we continually drink tastes more pleasant. Back then, however, one man could be blamed for the decline in good intentions. I doff my hat to Richard “Beau” Nash, whose statue stands in a discreet niche high on the wall, still overseeing the crowd as he did in the years when he made Bath fashionable as its “Master of Ceremonies”. The Welshman, a notorious gambler who fell on hard times before finding his, er, niche in life, made Bath the Las Vegas of its day, running gambling and arranging dances and marriages, while breaking down social barriers and managing any subsequent scandals.

He died in the arms of his mistress at the age of 89

“This was a man who even dictated what people wore,” says Helen. “He banned swords by saying they caught on ladies’ dresses, a clever way to stop duelling, and then riding boots, to discourage men from coming in still smelling of horses. When one gentleman held out, he made a spectacle of him in the Pump Room by asking archly if he had forgotten his horse. He was a fashion icon and one reason men now wear shoes and socks.”

A greater achievement was persuading the different classes to play nicely together. “He was a short round man but had a huge personality,” says Nick. “He had eight mistresses so he was obviously a ladies man but he was also a man’s man, as he controlled some very powerful people and was not intimidated by wealth and status. There is no modern equivalent to his role – we might call him head of tourism these days, though that is rather bland. His job is to welcome people who are coming to the city, check out their status and have them introduced to the right people. He also controlled gambling, which was a major preoccupation of the rich.”

Nick gives an example of Nash’s wit when he was accused of being a “whoremonger” because of his series of mistresses. “Sir, a man with one cheese at home is not called a cheesemonger,” he replied. When Nash died in 1761, in the arms of his eighth mistress at the age of 89, the novelist Oliver Goldsmith wrote a biography while the city fathers paid for a lavish funeral and put up a plaque to his memory in Bath Abbey.

Without Nash there would have been no fashionable invasion to fill the houses erected in elegant rows by architect John Wood during these boom years. They adopted a Palladian style that consciously mirrors Rome, especially in places such as The Circus – started in 1754 as a tribute to the Colosseum. “John the Elder even had plans for a Forum but died before it could be built,” says Arthur. “The Circus was finished by his son, also called John.”

Carved heads from mythology and astrology

In fact The Circus owes more to Wood’s obsession with Stonehenge and the ancient Druids. It was built with three entrances that mirror plans then current of how Stonehenge may have looked. Nick points out the Druidic acorns that top every roof and the juxtaposition of the sun circle of The Circus to the moon shape of the Royal Crescent. As I walk around it, I also see that the walls bear a series of carved heads from mythology and astrology.

The material used for The Circus and throughout the town is that warm Bath Stone, furnished from the quarries of Ralph Allen, who had already made a fortune as an efficient postmaster. The Royal Crescent, by John Wood the Younger, is another architectural tour de force, a curve of columned elegance that is world famous. “The shape of the original crescent – which was finished in 1785 – remains unique because it is a semi-ellipse, a semi oval if you like, rather than than a semi-circle,” says Nick. “It is a much more complicated shape – it is tight to start with, then flattens out before tightening up again. It gives it a very elegant contour.”

Looking at the detail, though, its cleverness starts to fall away. The mathematical precision of the facade is spoilt by an anarchic line of parked cars in all shapes, sizes and colors, but a walk around it reveals even more variety. The houses behind that famous frontage are a jumble of mish-mashed style, with odd extensions bolted on through the years, more Naples tenement than Venetian Palace.

But to go behind the Royal Crescent is to miss its most important feature, the view from the front. Although blighted by post-war housing, a much-needed response to the damage caused by World War II bombing (see mini feature on the Bath Blitz), swathes of greenery remain that stretch away to the Somerset Hills. A crumbling ha-ha reminds me that, when first built, the view was of entirely open country grazed by animals.

Ostentation and stultifying boredom

The houses were built to be let to the fashionable for the season. The Duke of York, “who had 10,000 men”, lived here, as did playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Now the famous names include Monty Python actor John Cleese. Jane Austen describes daily life for a visitor in her day: a morning bath, a stroll to the Pump Room to take the waters, then lunch and an afternoon nap, with the day ending after a visit to the theater or a dance at the Assembly Rooms. The property at No. 1 Royal Crescent, now a museum, shows how the interior of a “holiday apartment” looked at the time. Filled with fine furniture, delicate porcelain, oil paintings, chandeliers and four-poster beds, it is attached to a humbler house next door where the servants lived.

The young Austen actually found Bath a place of “ostentation and stultifying boredom” but, like any novelist, she did not let reality stand in the way of a good story. Her fans still come to celebrate her imaginary world, converging on the small Jane Austen Centre in Gay Street, near where she lived with her mother and sister. A costumed Mr Darcy standing outside invites visitors inside, while organized walks lead them through places connected with a writer whose work is still required reading in British schools – and for fans of period TV dramas.

Much of Bath seems familiar from her books and one thing has certainly not changed: the passion for shopping. Letters from here once sped home across the country bringing news of the latest fashions and, while Bath might no longer set the style, its shops still tempt visitors to splash out on a new outfit – or at least a souvenir. One popular spot for bargain hunting is Pulteney Bridge, built in 1776 after a rejected design by Palladio himself for a bridge in Venice and one of the few in the world with shops on it. It was built to allow the town to expand across the river but the American War of Independence and then the French Revolution at the end of the 1700s sent several local banks to their knees, stopping or postponing later development. The overthrow of the aristocracy in France also hastened change.

Cold water was seen as more healthy or even more moral.

“Bath started to decline in the Regency Era because the Prince Regent was interested in Brighton. Sea bathing became popular as did the cold water spas of places like Cheltenham,” says Nick. “Cold water was seen as more healthy or even more moral. The seaside until then had been seen as just a place for poor fishermen to fish but it is interesting that Jane Austen was already going to Lyme Regis to take in the sea air. As the lower classes moved in, the elite wanted to go somewhere else. It happens with ski resorts - this year it is Klosters, next year somewhere else.”

My last stop is Bath Abbey, whose soaring gothic structure is much rebuilt over the years but whose origins go back to the 7th century. Edgar – the first “King of the English” – was crowned here in 973AD. In 1499, the Norman church was torn down and a new one built on the site by Bishop Oliver King. His inspiration was a dream of angels climbing a ladder to heaven and this vision is carved in stone on the soaring frontage (with some head-down to show they are descending to earth). Inside, the vast space is flooded with light from the stained glass windows, the warm Bath Stone and vaulted roof giving it a remarkably airy feeling, a deliberate slice of heaven.

At a table in one aisle, bright squares of colored paper are provided for visitors to write prayers. Folded into tight parcels, just like those Roman offerings of old, they fill a small woven basket. “Please give my boys the strength to understand the changes that have been forced on them,” says one poignant note. Several others plead for the resolve we all share to lead a better life and be a better person. And one, written in neat Arabic script, asks that the world’s great religions might live in peace together. It is tempting to imagine a Roman soldier, landed here straight from North Africa, making exactly the same prayer about Sulis and Minerva 2,000 years ago – before heading off for a nice, hot bath.

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