Taking the Cure in Bath
I consider myself something of a "spa slut," actually planning vacations around visiting them (as recently as last weekend in fact, when I went up to Saratogs Springs). If there's a thermal springs somewhere I have to try them. In the U.S. so far, I've taken the plunge in New York, New Mexico, Colorado, and California. And I can trace it to my lifelong passion for one of my favorite places on earth.
Nothing beats Bath for this Jane Austen fan.
It’s hard to imagine what Bath must have looked like in 8000 BC. The steamy, swampy, sufurous hot springs bubbling up from the ground conjure images that are more primeval than Austenian. But fast-forwad to just before 863 BC, when, legend has it, Prince Bladud was cured of leprosy after bathing in the hot muddy waters. In gratitude, Bladud founded the City of Bath around the springs. As documented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century History of the Kings of Briton, Bladud became the 9th King of the Britons and was supposedly the father of King Lear.
Fast-forward again to 43 AD, when the Romans began to turn the city specifically into a spa, naming it Aquae Sulis, dedicating a temple dedicated to their goddess Sulis Minerva, a hybrid deity combining cultural elements of Roman and Ancient Briton. Over the next few decades, the Romans built a reservoir around the hot springs, and then a sophisticated series of baths. A temple to Aesculapius (god of healing), discovered near the Cross Bath indicates the probability of a Roman bath on this site dedicated to healing as well as to relaxation. The Romans also used the Cross and Healing springs; Bath has natural hot and cold springs that bubble up in more than one location. In 80 AD, Tacitus described the taking of the waters as “one of the those luxuries that stimulate to vice.” Somehow, I can’t think of the ancient Romans needing any further stimulant to vice. In any event, he was prescient, because the Georgian-era baths did just that.
As both a religious shrine and as a bathing complex, Aquae Sulis became a national tourist destination. During the Middle Ages, the baths enjoyed another renaissance, when Saxon baths were built to replace the Roman ones, although the Roman system of terra cotta pipes to carry the water below the floor level from one room to another was left intact. (In fact, when you visit the ancient baths today, you’ll be amazed at the engineering that is two millennia old!)
A text from 1138, the Gesta Stephani, describes how “Through hidden pipes, springs supply waters, heated not by human skill or art, from deep in the bowels of the earth to a reservoir in the midst of arched chambers, splendidly arranged, providing in the centre of the town baths which are pleasantly warm, healthy, and a pleasure to see . . . From all over England sick people come to wash away their infirmities in the healing waters, and the healthy gaze at the remarkable bubbling up of the hot springs.”
In 1562, William Turner published the first medical treatise on the use of the waters. Turner proposed segregated bathing (it didn’t last!), and a separate Lepers’ Bath (near the Hot Bath; before this, people with skin complaints had used the Cross Bath). However, there were still complaints about the absence of covering over the baths and the lack of changing rooms. Nonetheless, Bath was starting to attract visitors from mainland Europe. And with the tourists came the quack doctors who set up shop to bilk them. In 1707, Dr William Oliver’s “Practical Dissertation on Bath Water,” with its emphasis on drinking it as well as bathing, and a long list of diseases allegedly cured by these methods, helped to increase Bath’s attraction.
Royalty came to take the cure, including, at the end of the 17th century, the second wife of King James, II, Mary of Modena, who gave birth to their son James Stewart (“The Old Pretender”) nine months after bathing in the Cross Bath. And after Queen Anne visited Bath to take the waters, the frequency of her visits led to even greater aristocratic patronage, soon making Bath the premier playground for the glitterati and those who aspired to mingle in their sphere of fashion and frivolity. A vast rebuilding plan began, thanks in large part to John Wood the elder, and his son (John Wood the younger). Their architectural projects, such as The Circus and the Royal Crescent, contributed to Bath’s unique character.
The Cross Bath was the most fashionable bath, being the most private. Musicians serenaded the bathers, while chocolate was drunk by other bathers relaxing around the elaborate Melfort Cross, erected in 1688 to celebrate the birth of James II’s son.
The chronically or terminally diseased, and those with running sores took the cure in the same baths as others with far lesser complaints. The palsied, the gout-ridden—everyone bathed together. And the stench was said to be so great that studded pomanders were floated on the waters to mask the odors. While the beneficial and healing properties of the water have always been acknowledged, modesty and decency were not always been inherent in Bath’s “spa culture.” John Wood the Elder observed, “The Baths were like so many Bear Gardens, and Modesty was entirely shut out of them; people of both sexes bathing by day and night naked.” Later, the bathers were compelled to don coarse brown shifts, but the genders still mingled, and all sorts of licentious behavior took place, even in the baths themselves, this orgiastic atmosphere an unwitting throw-back to Ancient Rome.
From Rowlandson's 1798 caricature series, "The Comforts of Bath"
In 1777, the Hot Bath was rebuilt to the design of John Wood the Younger. And eleven years later, new Private Baths (now demolished) were built between the King’s Bath and Stall Street. In the 1790s, the Pump Room that we all know and love today was built to replace the 1706 Pump Room, which had become inadequate and obsolete. It was while excavating the foundations for the second Pump Room that many of the first finds relating to the Roman Temple were made.
In the 1870 and 80s the King’s Bath was excavated by Major Charles Davis, and during the turn of the century, Bath spa water, bottled and sold as Sulis Water, promised relief from rheumatism, gout, lumbago, sciatica and neuritis. After WWI, thousands of wounded soldiers were rehabilitated in spa towns such as Bath.
I love Bath for the whole experience of the city—the Pump Room, the Roman Baths, the Royal Crescent, the Abbey, and all those wonderful side streets where you can just lose yourself. Seemingly untouched by modernity, you can inject yourself into Northanger Abbey or Persuasion with only the smallest leap of imagination. No matter how many times I visit Bath, I have to enjoy a proper afternoon tea in the Pump Room, sample the warm spa water (“when in Rome . . . ”, after all) and check out the most recent excavation down in the Roman Baths. I can’t help but imagine who walked there before me . . . Charles Dickens, the tall and portly Queen Anne, the short and portly Victoria, Lord Nelson, and of course, Jane Austen.
The latest incarnation of the public (for an entrance fee) baths is open. Now enclosed within a glassy high-rise, the Thermae Bath Spa is a little too ultramodern for my 18th century sensibilities; yet despite the Woody Allen-esque high-tech scented steam pods, the rooftop pool is rather an amazing experience as you swim in the natural springs and admire the graceful architecture of Bath Abbey and the verdant vistas of Somerset. The baths down the street in the Georgian-era Cross Bath building fill the bill nicely for the cure-seeking time traveler.
Would you “take the cure” with a bunch of other people at the same time? Does it fascinate you, or turn you off?