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 in Bath 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 here, the only ones in Britain, certainly do.
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.”
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