Bath hopes its spa will ease painful memories


The Times August 03, 2006

Bath hopes its spa will ease painful memories
By Simon de Bruxelles

The £45 million attraction is finally ready after years of bitter wrangling. Our correspondent dips into the relaxing waters

The spas in the city of Bath, Avon, were built by the Romans so the wealthy could bathe in the health-giving properties of the only naturally occurring hot springs in Britain. They were enjoyed up until the Georgian period when people discovered that the waters may have turned poisonous. This week, they have reopened once again to the public after being refurbished. Many of Bath's restaurants serve the hot mineral water from the spas as a drink - it's healthy but apparently doesn't taste very nice.

BUBBLES are rising in the pools, the space-age steam room is shimmering and the ancient, honey-coloured walls surrounding the Hot Bath make it look like a whirlpool designed for a Harry Potter film.

Despite the conjunction of ancient and modern, it is easy to imagine Romans or Georgians taking their ease at Britain’s only naturally occurring hot spring.

Three years to the day since the Three Tenors prematurely serenaded its opening, and at least 300 per cent over budget, the Thermae Bath Spa is ready for its first paying guests. The doors open on Monday, when the taxpayers of Bath will finally find out how more than £30 million of their council tax has been spent.

The Royal Crescent

Bath is one of Britain's most historic cities, with many Roman statues.

The new spa is an altogether more discreet affair than the original Roman baths 100 yards away, tucked away as it is in a side street. The entrance in a restored Georgian building looks more like that to a minimalist hotel than the showcase of a £45 million enterprise. A short flight of steps leads to the changing area, where visitors don bathrobes and rubber slippers.

The first stop for most will be the roof, where bathers can enjoy a 360-degree view of the rooftops of one of the most beautiful cities in Britain. The costly rows over waterproof paint that was not, windows that delaminated and floors that leaked are soon forgotten.

The water is maintained at a coddling 35C (95F), ten degrees cooler than it emerges from the ground: this is a pool for relaxing in, not swimming. The waters contain 42 minerals, said by the Ancients to have medicinal properties.

Peter Rollins, the marketing manager, said: “Because of the temperature and the minerals in the water you’d feel pretty knackered if you tried swimming about.”

The rooftop pool is one of four in the complex. The Hot Bath is where much of the water-based therapy takes place, such as Watsu massage. The larger Minerva pool in the basement looks not dissimilar to pools in leisure centres, except for the absence of flumes and a strict “no cannonballs” rule.

The inventive list of treatments includes the Alpine Hay Bath (£38 ), the Chardonnay Bath (£38 ), the Aromatic Moor Mud Wrap (£45) and something called the Litho-Cal Seaweed Peel (£40).

The spring that bubbles to the surface in the Cross Bath was a sacred site for the Celts even before the arrival of the Romans. Bath residents will be able to worship the water gods there at the reduced rate of £6, instead of £12.

For those who want to sample the Spa proper, tickets start at £19 for a two-hour session, but most of the 2,000 people who have booked their visit also want to experience one of the therapies on offer.

A man called Brian was my introduction to the exotic world of Thai massage. Having changed into Thai fisherman’s trousers and a T-shirt, I lay down on a fleece-covered mattress and waited nervously for Brian to do his worst.

It was not as bad as I had feared as he manipulated my arms and legs into various unlikely positions. Having stretched the front, he rolled me over and stood on my back, using his toes to massage muscles that I did not know I had.

My wife, more of an expert in these things, tried the Pantai Luar massage, which involved being drenched in aromatic oils then pummelled with two large “dumplings” filled with lime and coconut. The full 50-minute treatment cost £55 — “a bargain”.

She was less impressed with other aspects of the spa. “The loos were not only not next door to the changing rooms, they were on an entirely different floor,” she said.

Her verdict was that the spa will prove a huge hit with visitors to Bath, but possibly not with residents.


Bath is a city in South West England most famous for its baths fed by three hot springs. It is situated 96.8 miles (155.8 km) west of Charing Cross in London. It is also called Bath Spa.

The city was first documented as a Roman spa, although tradition suggests that it was founded earlier. The waters from its spring were believed to be a cure for many afflictions. From Elizabethan to Georgian times it was a resort city for the wealthy. As a result of its popularity during the latter period, the city contains many fine examples of Georgian architecture, most notably the Royal Crescent. The city has a population of over 80,000 and is a World Heritage Site.

The archaeological evidence shows that the site of the main spring was treated as a shrine by the Celts, and dedicated to the goddess Sulis. The Romans probably occupied Bath shortly after their invasion of Britain in 43 AD. They knew it as Aquae Sulis (literally "the waters of Sulis"), identifying the goddess with Minerva. In Roman times the worship of Sulis continued and messages to her scratched onto metal have been recovered from the Sacred Spring by archaeologists. These are known as curse tablets. These curse tablets were written in Latin, and usually laid curses on other people, whom they feel had done them wrong. For Example, if a citizen had his clothes stolen at the Baths, he would write a curse on a tablet, to be read by the Goddess Sulis, and also, the "suspected" names would be mentioned. The corpus from Bath is the most important found in Britain.

During the Roman period, increasingly grand temples and bathing complexes were built in the area, including the Great Bath. Rediscovered gradually from the 18th century onward, they have become one of the city's main attractions. The city was given defensive walls, probably in the 3rd century. From the later 4th century on, the Western Roman Empire and its urban life declined. However, while the great suite of baths at Bath fell into disrepair, some use of the hot springs continued.
The steamy story of the £45m baths
by JANE FRYER, Daily Mail

4th August 2006

Billowing from the turquoise waters, clouds of bismuth, steam and sulphur fog up the warm West Country air and shroud everything in a hot, sticky mist. Peer more closely, however, and acres of plump, naked flesh glow pink in the half-light.

In one corner, a bored-looking prostitute straddles a drunken guard. In another, a dozen soldiers break into song, before plunging naked into the marble pool.

Men and women wrestle, writhe, fornicate and philosophise in the pool while, at the water's edge, a small army peddles sausages, oysters and roasted dormice.

This, according to historians, was a typical Roman scene in the genteel city of Bath. In their heyday, the hot springs at Aquae Sulis — where a million litres of hot spring water burst each day from red-stained holes in the stone walls — attracted hordes of visitors, including emperors, soldiers, housewives, prostitutes and children.

The scene is very different today. While the Roman baths still remain as a historical exhibit, visitors are forbidden from taking to the waters. Instead, attention is focused on a new building across the road.

For ten years, an attempt has been under way to construct new baths, with real spa treatments for visitors, introducing them to some, if not all, of the Romans' favourite pastimes.

The plan has been beset by the sort of infighting, deceit and power struggles that would have made the Romans proud. There have been 12 missed opening dates, and costs have shot up from a predicted £13.5million — including an £8 million grant from the Millennium Commission — to £45 million, according to incensed Labour MP Dan Norris.

But on Monday, Bath's Roman spa will finally re-open for business. So can the spirit of reckless indulgence that attracted so many people in the past be revived?

Founded in AD 43, after the invasion of Britain by Emperor F Claudius, Aquae Sulis was dedicated to Minerva, the Roman goddess of war, wisdom and crafts. According to Peter Jones, a classics scholar and writer, it was open to anyone who could afford the negligible entrance fee.

'Baths were dirt cheap and the focus of social get-togethers both for the great and good and the poor and dissolute,' he says. 'They catered for almost everything: swimming, exercise, shopping, eating, reading, boozing, philosophy, beauty treatments and, most importantly, sex.

'Intercourse was commonplace — either with women, young boys or slaves. Sometimes it was in the water, but often the baths were a sort of foreplay or, often, a five or six play. They were a bit like naked leisure centres, with a sordid twist.'

Scrubbing up: the baths have been rejuvenated

Beauty treatments were also wildly popular and just as odd-sounding as those on offer today.

Men's armpits, backs, chests and genitals were stripped of hair by expert pluckers. Bodies were smothered in oil and scraped with strips of wood or bone, and massages were common, although the wealthy would usually bring their favourite slave to do the honours.

With their skin pink and crinkly from the water, and libidos sated, Romans would head to the gym, library, restaurants, shops, lounges, taverns, museums or theatres.

While Roman baths represented extreme hedonism (ancient graffiti on the walls in Latin read: 'Baths, drink and sex corrupt our bodies, but baths, drink and sex make life worth living'), they were also the summit of civil engineering.

Commissioned and paid for by emperors and benefactors, they had underfloor heating, saunas, steam rooms, hot and cold pools, and specially filtered water. They were built to exacting standards by skilled slaves on time and within budget.

Around AD 410, however, the Romans began to withdraw from Britain to concentrate on defending Rome against barbarians, and the baths fell into ruin.

When, two centuries later, Bath was conquered by the Saxons, the spa was swallowed by a swamp.

It was rediscovered only in 1790, during the great revival of the city, when foundations were dug for a new kind of healing spa. Visitors included everyone from Jane Austen to Napoleon.

This closed in the 1970s, due to a health scare when a woman contracted Legionnaires' disease after bathing in the hot spring water.

But as the tourists tailed off, many Bath residents continued to believe that the city's fortunes were linked to those of the baths. So it seemed a good idea, a decade ago, to revive them once more.

A building would be constructed 100yards from the original Roman spa. It would be a gleaming vision of glass, steel and honey-coloured stone, with sunken lighting, white Kashmir granite floors and Italian plate-glass windows.

Work began, supported by the Millennium Commission. But in April 1999, a pair of mallards laid six eggs on the site. Building work was delayed by 18 months.

The baths have since suffered a stream of expensive disasters. Contractors drilled the wrong bore hole to access the waters. A month was lost when cranes were damaged by high winds. Cobbles outside the spa were laid incorrectly and had to be pulled up.

And, last February, costs reportedly soared by another £700,000 when all 274 windows needed replacing, apparently due to vandalism and subsidence.

Meanwhile, the steam-room floor started leaking, the original water filtration system had to be replaced at a cost of £91,000 and the spa's pride and joy — a rippling, aquamarine, open-air rooftop pool, with stainless steel fixtures buffed to a gleaming shine with Johnson's Baby Oil — filled up with seagull excrement.

In August 2003, however, faces were at their reddest. Three days before Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo jetted in to open the baths, there was another catastrophe.

Peter Rollins, sales and marketing manager for Dutch operator the Thermae Development company, recalls: 'Everything was perfect.

'The baths were full, the waters were bubbling away, we had 60 staff trained and ready to go, the place looked wonderful and the Three Tenors were on their way. Then someone noticed the waterproof paint was flaking off,' he whispers. 'It was devastating, absolutely devastating.'

Too late and too sheepish to cancel, organisers hastily changed the event from 'an opening' to a 'revival' of the spa and as soon as the tenors had dipped their chubby toes in the water, pulled the plug.

The unexpected costs have left the council, which has guaranteed the project, with a nearly £40million bill. No wonder Norris calls it 'the Daddy of all overspends — a glorified swimming pool that most can't afford to visit'.

At full capacity, the complex will hold just 250 visitors, each of whom will have to pay £19 for two hours and £45 for a full day to enjoy the main complex. Treatments — ranging from £38 for an alarming-sounding Alpine hay bath to £135 for a caviar-and-pearl facial — are extra.

Even the £6 discount for residents to the tiny Cross Bath is unlikely to soothe ruffled feathers. 'It is incompetence on a magnificent scale,' rages Norris. 'Put it this way — if you buy a Mini and it ends up costing a million, it's never going to be good value, however hard you flog it.'

I'm not so sure. The New Royal Bath is an exceptionally beautiful building in a stunning setting. The waters shimmer invitingly and the marriage between Georgian, Roman and 21st-century architecture is a great success.

The Romans would doubtless have been appalled at the costly mess. Yet, as Rollins puts it: 'I'm sure there were hiccups back then, but it would have been a lot easier.

'After all, if the slaves got things wrong, their masters could just lop a few heads off. If only things had been as simple in Bath today.'

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