Exploring Britain’s Roman period at the remains of a temple and bathing site
The city of Bath, Somerset in southwest England is known for its thermal waters fed by natural hot springs and its Roman-built baths. I’ve wanted to see the Roman Baths, one of the most visited heritage attractions in the United Kingdom, for years and was not disappointed when I finally had my chance.
The Roman Baths extend under modern ground level. After the Romans withdrew from England, the baths they built fell into disrepair and eventually disappeared. The area remained known for its curative waters. Other baths and spas were built over the course of the city’s history and the Roman baths remained forgotten for centuries. The re-discovered Roman Baths opened to the public in 1897. Over the years, further excavation and development has occurred to enhance what the public is able to see. The most recent redevelopment was in 2011 to bring modern interpretation to the site.
The current visitor entrance is via an 1897 concert hall by J.M. Brydon. Personal audio guides are available with your ticket purchase. In addition to information about various points throughout the site, the audio guide contains commentary from framed travel writer Bill Bryson. The site contains ruins of the baths, the Roman temple and city, and a museum about Roman life containing artifacts found during excavation, reconstructions, and computer animations.
The first thing a visitor sees after leaving the entrance hall is the terrace overlooking the Great Bath. The terrace is lined with Victorian statues of Roman emperors and governors of Britain. The terrace and statues were built in the late 1800s when the Roman Baths opened. The Great Bath is now open to the sky, but in Roman times it was covered with an enormous barrel-vaulted ceiling rising to a height of 40 metres.
In the 12th century, the Kings Bath was built within the Roman ruins. The ledge around the Spring is all that remains of the floor of Kings Bath. In 1979, the floor was removed and the water level lowered to Roman level. Niches around the bath would have held benches for bathers and possibly tables for drinks and snacks. Orange stains on the wall mark the former water level of Kings Bath.
In the Temple Courtyard, visitors explore the sacred area of the ruins, the place where sacrifices were made at the altar. The city of Bath was established by the Romans as Aquae Sulis around AD 43. They built a sophisticated series of baths and a temple to the goddess Sulis Minerva. The site, both a bathing complex and a shrine, was changed and expanded over the following four hundred years. Artifacts discovered at the site and information on tombstones provide a picture of Roman life at the time. The artifacts, augmented with what archaeologists have learned about Roman life, are on display in the museum. The Beau Street Hoard, a collection of coins discovered in 2007 on the site of the current Gainsborough Hotel on Beau Street, is included in the displays.
My favourite part of the Roman Baths was the bathing suite, with its heated rooms, swimming pools, and change rooms. Ruins of these rooms extend at both the eastern and western ends of the site. In Roman times, a visit to the baths could take all afternoon and involved exercise, spending time in pools of different temperatures, and a massage.
The Spring overflow carries surplus water to the original Roman drain and on to the River Avon. The Roman plumbing and drainage system is still largely in place. Water passes through original lead pipes and the Roman Baths are unsafe for bathing. If you wish to experience the thermal water yourself, the nearby Thermae Bath Spa uses the same water, treated to make it safe.
The spa water at Bath has been used for healing purposes for two thousand years. Original treatments involved bathing in the water. In the late 17th century, drinking spa water was considered treatment for various conditions. In the Pump Room, there is a fountain where current visitors can sample the water. The water contains 43 minerals and I had been warned about the taste. The water has an unusual taste and is not something I would make a drink of choice, but it did not taste as bad as I had been expecting.
I was fascinated by the museum and surprised to find so much information on Roman life beyond the baths themselves. This was my first visit, but I think return visitors will also enjoy the museum, especially if it has been many years since seeing the museum. The development over the past number of years means there is more to see and experience. The development program is ongoing, with further excavation continuing.
You need about one and a half to two hours to go through the Roman Baths. There are two restaurants and a gift shop on site. The baths are located six metres below street level. Although there are two lifts, you cannot access the entire site without navigating a few stairs. For information about accessibility, tickets, and hours of operations, see the Roman Baths web site.
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