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Bath is a small city in the English countryside. Bristol Airport (the closest airport to Bath) is about 30 minutes by bus. Bath is a two-hour train ride from London, and many people come to Bath a day trip. Bath is unique because it’s one of only a few places where the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While I recommend spending at least a couple of days to get to see this beautiful city if you’re just going to be here for the day, then my top recommendation is to visit The Roman Baths.
The Roman Empire in Bath
Way back in the day the Romans were busy expanding their empire. In about 60AD the Romans got about to where present day Bath is located and saw it had a hot spring. Being fans of public bathhouses, they decided to set up a Roman post in this far west region of their empire. They named the site Aquae Sulis, which I believe translates directly to, “hey guys check out how hot this water is here. Isn’t this crazy? We should totally use these natural hot springs water and build a fancy public bathhouse with like pipes and basic plumbing and everything. I mean we’ll use lead pipes, and we don’t know that lead is poisonous, but whatevs. Bath time!!!”
Or maybe they named it after the goddess Sulis Minerva (actual translation is – the water of Sulis). Sulis was originally a goddess of the Celtic people that lived in the area. The Romans kind of just merged this Celtic goddess of Sulis with their goddess of Minerva. There are instances of Celtic Gods having Roman counterparts, but it’s less common for goddesses. Sulis Minerva was pretty much only worshiped at Aquae Sulis.
The Roman Baths
There are Roman ruins in plenty of places in Europe (and Africa), but aside from seeing an old Roman wall in London, Bath was my first significant Roman ruins experience. It’s one of the best preserved Roman baths in the world. Admission rangers £15.50 to £17.00 depending on the time of year and time of day of your visit. The Roman Baths offer a free audio guide in several languages. As well they have guided tours that run on the hour starting at 10am. I highly recommend getting the audio guide and going on the guided tour (both included in the admission price). The guided tour gives you lots of information at the Roman Baths.
The Romans had a whole ritual before you could go into the bath. Both men and women could use the main bath but had separate changing/cleaning areas/plunge pools/entrances. The change rooms event had heated floors. The floors here were raised upon stacks of tiles that allowed warm air from an oven at one end of the room (stoked by Roman slaves) to circulate through. Those Romans were pretty smart.
The Romans also didn’t just use the bathhouse as a way to relax (like a spa day as people would now). It was also seen as a place to do business. Trades and deals were often done at the bathhouse. Imagine having a business meeting at a thermal spa.
Aside from seeing the main bath, and other areas the Romans used, like the plunge pools and the changing regions there is a museum that contains artifacts found at the bathhouse. A lot of these items were located at the Temple of Sulis Minerva. The temple had its own bath for the Goddess (the Sacred Spring) where people could worship Sulis Minerva. If a local Roman had been wronged, they would write a curse on lead or pewter against whoever hurt them and throw it in the sacred spring. It was believed Sulis Minerva would intervene and bring justice for the transgression. Perhaps not surprising many people wrote curses because someone had stolen their clothes while they were at the bathhouse. Too bad the Romans didn’t invent lockers and padlocks.
After The Romans Left
After the Roman Empire fell and the Romans left Bath other people moved in and started using the thermal waters. In Victorian times it was believed the waters at Bath had healing properties, so people who were sick or injured often journeyed to Bath to heal themselves. In the 18th Century architects, John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger (a father and son who designed several famous building in Bath) designed the building around the sacral spring. The Pump Room, which is now a restaurant, was created by Thomas Baldwin and John Palmer. Today the buildings that you see above street level at The Roman Baths were not there in Roman times but added on later.
Can You Go in the Water?
Short answer no. Long answer the pools at the Roman Baths definitely has lead (from those lead pipes the Roman used). The water also has infectious diseases. Swimming was frequent in the main bath until 1978 when a young girl swimming there ended up dying of meningitis. Since then the water at the Roman Baths have been a look, don’t touch, kind of deal. If you want to experience the thermal waters natural to the area The Thermae Spa close to The Roman Baths (which I personally didn’t visit) will let you.
Can You Drink the Water?
No! Well except in one particular place in The Roman Baths, which is at a fountain at the end of the museum (there’ll be a sign telling you it’s okay to drink this water). The water here is naturally quite warm there’s a definite sulphur-like kind of smell. Back in the Roman days, people believed this drinking this water would heal them. Turns out they were actually drinking water contaminated by lead pipes (sort of the opposite of healing). This fountain has a filtration system that uses the natural spring water in the area. You’re not drinking the same water that’s been sitting in the pools of the Roman Baths (with all its lead contamination). The water from this particular fountain is safe to drink.
Did I drink this supposedly magical (safe) water? Yes, and I can confidently say it’s not the best thing I’ve ever drunk in my life, but it’s certainly not the worst (I’m looking at you lemon milk I made when I was 6). I don’t think it really helped me get rid of the cold I had during my visit (at least not quicker than usual). However month later back in Dublin a regular customer at my work said I looked really young. I visited Bath only a few months back and drank the restorative water from the fountain. Coincidence? I think not. Wait it could have been because of the new haircut I got. Nah, it was definitely that weird tasting warm water.
Things You Should Know
The Roman Baths are located on Stall Street in Bath, next to the Bath Abbey. You can find a map here. The Roman Baths are open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, but I’d advise going when they first open before the queues are too long. Even though it can get busy The Roman Baths are a fascinating historic site worth visiting.
While in Bath I stayed in a 6-bed female dorm at the YHA Bath Hostel. While the location was a bit outside the centre of Bath (and involved walking up Bathwick Hill), the hostel was clean and well taken care of. I paid for my own stay here. If you are not on a budget, there are great hotels in Bath that you can book here.
Have you been to The Roman Baths in Bath before?