#1Aug 3rd, 2006
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.