This summer I made a long-awaited city trip to Bath, England. I first heard about this enchanting city and the glorious ancient Roman thermal baths it houses about twenty years ago. As a great fan of classical antiquity, Bath had been on my bucket list ever since. It’s quite astonishing that after 2,000 years, the Roman Baths in Bath are still the city’s biggest draw. They are even one of the top tourist attractions in England! In this blog I tell you what there’s to see and share some tips to help plan your own visit.
While waiting in line to enter the Roman bathhouse, I witnessed a police chase
Although it looked very exciting, it was all staged. Because what I saw just across the Roman Baths was a film crew shooting a thrilling new drama series. I briefly considered auditioning for a role there and then, but didn’t want to lose my spot in the (short) queue.
I might’ve sabotaged my own breakthrough on national TV, but I had to focus on my main goal for Bath: to visit the Roman baths! And to ensure I didn’t have to share this long-held experience with dozens of other tourists, hubby and I arrived at 9 o’clock sharp.
Are the Roman Baths in Bath worth a visit?
I can be very brief about this: YES! My visit to the Roman Baths was truly fantastic. I couldn’t stop thinking how incredible it was to be able to wander around such a huge building complex where the Romans came together almost 2,000 years ago (!) to swim a few relaxing laps, gossip with each other and be pampered.
But besides bathing, the Romans also came here to worship the gods
When the Romans came across the bubbling hot springs during their English invasion, they had only one logical explanation for this.
This was the work of the gods.
But they weren’t particularly original in this. Because the bubbling mineral-rich water was already considered as a healing source by the Celts who lived here well before the Romans. And that’s why the Celts had dedicated the sacred location to Sul, goddess of spring, fertility and healing.
Although the Romans had their own set of gods they believed in, they didn’t want to offend the local tribe and the Celtic goddess too much. I guess you can’t be careful enough! That’s why they invented a new goddess especially for this occasion: Minerva Sulis. This special hybrid-goddess was a combination of the Celtic goddess Sul and the Roman goddess Minerva, goddess of wisdom.
Long before the advent of social media, the Romans found an ingenious way of complaining
The Romans built a large spa right on top of the thermal springs. It included a temple dedicated to Minerva Sulis which had the Sacred Spring right next to it. The Romans believed this sacred source was a direct line to Minerva Sulis and therefore left their sacrifices there. But they also came here to throw lead curse notes into the water. On these notes they usually wrote about a terrible injustice they had suffered and cursed the perpetrator.
And do you know what those horrible things were that the Romans complained about to Minerva Sulis? Most often the theft of their clothing while they were bathing. Really, how annoying is that? But thieves sometimes stole more than just clothing. The author of the note below curses the person who stole Vilbia, who was probably a slave.
May he who carried off Vilbia from me become liquid as the water. May he who so obscenely devoured her become dumb.
There are a few of these curse notes on display in the Roman Baths. And personally, those were truly one of the highlights of my visit. Because when you think of Romans, you usually think of a highly developed and sophisticated civilisation, right? So whilst reading those curse notes in the Roman Baths it was quite refreshing to discover they also dealt with very mundane issues such as petty thefts.
I also found it rather comical that they didn’t only complain about the perpetrators, but even went one step further by officially cursing them and asking Minerva Sulis to punish them! I can’t help but think those curse notes were the ancient version of Twitter where people tend to complain about everyone and everything. (Yup, I’m guilty of that too!)
What is there to see in the Roman bathhouse?
The large bath (Great Bath) is by far the highlight of the entire bath complex, but the ancient holy spring (Sacred Spring) is just as impressive. Unfortunately these baths with their bright green alga-filled water are no longer suitable for swimming. If you’re interested in bathing in the famous thermal springs of Bath, you’d have more luck at the Thermae Bath Spa.
In the other baths you get an idea of their original usage and appearance from the projected video reconstructions. They show you for example how they utilised the thermal water to heat up the sauna rooms. But do you know what I was mostly excited about? The ingenious sewerage system originally constructed by the Romans! I know, my interests are a bit peculiar at times, but it’s quite incredible to see how clever those Romans were. Their building skills were really unparalleled!
Besides the various bath and sauna rooms, there are also a number of rooms in which you can admire countless excavated antique objects. In addition to the curse notes, you will also find hundreds of coins, masks, tiny amulets, gravestones and much more. And thanks to the large-scale model of the temple and the bathhouse complex you get a good idea of how glorious it must have looked like in the time of the Romans.
The Roman Baths in Bath were almost lost forever
When Roman rule came to an end in England in the 5th century, the bathhouse also fell into disrepair. Due to flooding of the River Avon, everything was buried under a thick layer of mud and parts of the building collapsed.
The Roman ruins were buried underground for hundreds of years. Yet the thermal springs of Bath still attracted large groups of people because of their supposed medicinal qualities. It was really the place to be among the British elite and even celebrated author Jane Austen lived in the city for some time.
From the 18th century, doctors started to prescribe the thermal water as a remedy for various health problems. The first Pump Room opened in 1706 from where visitors could tap water directly from the thermal springs via a water pump. Nowadays the Pump Room is a restaurant next to the Roman Baths.
Slowly Bath changed into the elegant city it is today with the construction of hundreds of stately Georgian buildings. Yet it took another century before the Roman Baths were discovered. The baths have been open to the public again since the end of the 19th century. And today, after several years of renovations with an investment of £5.5 million, the Baths are guaranteed to be experienced by generations to come.
Our visit to the bath and sauna complex took almost 2 hours. Impressed by the building ingenuity of the Romans, we concluded our visit with a glass of warm spring water. What did that taste like? Well, let’s say the opposite of a refreshing glass of water … and I won’t be rushing back for a refill. Despite the unpleasant conclusion, our visit to the Roman Baths exceeded all my expectations. And I was equally impressed with all the other things the city of Bath had to offer. But more about that in a future blog post!