Complete 1,850 - word article


By Pam Hobbs

"I hope it will create a greater pride in what is already a very beautiful, special place." - Charlotte Hanna at Bath's new Thermae Bath Spa.

"I trust you don't think these bubbles are coming from me" says Felicity in a tone as imperious as any echoing through the halls of Buckingham Palace. "Well I certainly disclaim them" responds her sister, Babs, in mock indignation. That leaves me, with a silly grin on my face, as the air bubbles take on a life of their own and spread to cover a good portion of the pool. It's an unusual introduction and a memorable one, as I am joined by the two buxom sisters, up from Bournemouth for Felicity's 60th birthday, to try out the newly opened Thermae Bath Spa in the strikingly handsome and historic city of Bath.

Giggling like six year olds, interrupting each other with every sentence, they tell me they grew up here, and regularly swam in the hot springs until the baths' closure thirty years ago. Standing tall in the open-air roof-top pool, they point out streets beyond the slate roofs and chimney pots all around us: where they went to school, where they lived as youngsters, the Abbey and wooded hills beyond "which will never be built on, don't you know, because the National Trust owns them." They say they've been waiting for ever to have a new spa in their old hometown. Finally, after years of wrangling, outrageous financial over-runs, and even a law suit, this brilliant new Thermae Bath Spa opened last August. Felicity and Babs agree it was well worth the wait. For my part, I find it simply hard to believe I am wallowing in water generated by hot springs flowing through the ground here for thousands of years.

Legends of the springs' healing properties go back to 863 BC when a prince called Bladud came home from a stint in Athens, only to find he had leprosy. Banished from court, and forced to earn a living as a swineherd, one day he retrieved his pigs from a swamp awash with the springs. Not only was his leprosy cured but the pigs' scabs cleared up too. Then - since every believable fairy story must have a happy ending - Bladud was reinstated to princedom, built a spa over the swamp and named it Bad Lud, or Bath Water.

Fact or fancy, to fully appreciate the importance of this new spa I decided to go back in time - from this futuristic building all light and glass and local buff-coloured stone, past the British Home Stores fronting a pedestrian shopping mall, across to a warren of cobbled lanes with one-of-a-kind emporiums in business here for at least 700 years. And there, with the fabulous 15th century Abbey as a backdrop, are the restored Roman Baths uncovered by l9th century workmen checking on somebody's wet basement.

Britain has only three hot springs, all of which are in Bath. Without them there would be no city here in Somerset's scenic Avon Valley. None of the visible history causing UNESCO to designate it a World Heritage Site. No visitors flocking to benefit from the curative powers of these steaming waters, spurting through the ground at 50 deg.C and a rate of 1.4 million litres a day, since time began.

"In Britain are hot springs adorned with sumptuous splendour for use

of mortals. Minerva is the patron goddess of these." - Solaris, 3rd Century A.D. If the waters give this place its soul, it can be said that the Romans gave it a heart. During close to 400 years of occupation their huge religious spa complex, which they called Aquae Sulis, embraced a temple, sweat and cold rooms, courtyards and promenades, and at least five pools - its largest being the Great Bath (also known as the King's Bath) just l00 yards from the brand new Thermae Bath Spa. At a glance the Great Bath looks too good to be true - like a movie set or one of those 'authentic recreations' Disney World does so well. But it is real. In fact, ghosts of Roman soldiers are often seen from the waist up, marching through its steam. Ghosts or not, the pool, the temple, and other attendant buildings all ignite the imagination, here at what has to be one of Britain's most impressive Roman sites.

A museum displays gems, pewter vessels, gold jewellery and trinkets recovered during the Great Bath's restoration. There's also a gilded head of Minerva, the Roman Goddess of Healing, and eloquent curses found by workmen. Usually written on lead, backwards so that only the goddess could read them, they demand serious retribution for some dastardly deed or another. Such is one written by Decimedis who, when he lost two gloves, asked for the person who stole them to have his hands and eyes given to the temple.

"I am now upon the mending hand. I am physicked three times a day,

drink the waters and bathe every other night. My health, thank God is very near perfectly restored and I have very near the perfect use of my limbs..." Horatio Nelson, arriving Bath in 1781 after losing an arm in battle.

The first Pump Room was built alongside the King's Bath in 1706, so that visitors could relax in comfort while sipping their 'cure', chat with friends, watch bathers. You too can drink the water aptly described by Sam Weller in Pickwick Papers as having "a very strong flavour o' warm flat irons." Or better yet stay for an elegant lunch, to the accompaniment of a musical trio in an atmosphere reminiscent of Georgian times.

This was the city's heyday, the 1700s and early l800s, when the rich and regal gathered in Bath to take its waters. A time of theatre-going, formal dinner parties, galas and gambling. Impeccable dress and manners were in vogue. Dandies dressed in satin and brocade and powdered wigs, while women wore the most impractical of fashions. Parks and promenades, lavishly decorated Assembly Rooms and theatres were built, as were splendid homes in sweeping crescents and circles which are as architecturally distinguished as any in Britain today. Still the prime attraction was belief in the hot springs' curative powers for anything from gout to infertility.

"It is beautiful, fabulous: the city has been reunited with its soul" Nicole O'Flaherty, East Somerset councillor responsible for tourism in 2006.

In one form or another the baths remained open to the public until l978, when a woman died from meningitis following a dip in a spring-fed pool. Since then, several attempts were made to re-open the thermal waters to the public, but all failed. Finally, a lottery grant from the Millennium Commission gave city fathers the push they needed to go ahead. However, new construction within the city's historic core proved no easy task, and by the time the Thermae Spa finally opened it had cost three times the original estimate, and everything from poor workmanship to a pair of nesting pigeons delayed the opening by three years.

State-of-the art, high tech, futuristic - call it what you will, I find it truly breath-taking. In all, five restored historic buildings, plus the new ultra-modern centrepiece known as the New Royal Bath, are orchestrated into a wonderful harmony.

The slight intimidation I felt on my morning visit has vanished by the time I sail through again at the end of day, using my 'smart band' like an old pro. No jamming myself in the turnstile entrance this evening. No panic because I can't figure out how to leave my changing room. This time around I know that one little tap from my clever wrist band gets me into the baths, opens a locker and even allows me to charge for treatments or a meal in the restaurant.

The new facility has three pools for bathing while a fourth, (the Hot Bath) is reserved for individual water treatments. In a separate building, The historic Cross Bath, fed by its own hot spring spurting up from three kilometres below ground, accommodates a maximum of 12 people at one time.

Foot-weary from a busy day of sight-seeing, my first stop this evening is below street level at the Minerva Pool, where soothing whirlpools and massaging jets do their stuff. In this the spa's largest pool (with room for 60 bathers) waters contain some 42 minerals and trace elements believed to help skin ailments, depression and high blood pressure. Certainly I can confirm its fulfilment of promise to create a sense of well-being. From there a few short steps bring me to the steam area where, staged around a dramatic fibre optic lit waterfall, each of four glass pods is perfumed by jasmine, lavender, mint or pine. Opting for lavender, I am almost asleep within minutes of being wrapped in its sweet-scented cocoon of steam.

Fifty different treatments are on offer, including the house specialty called a Watsu, which is virtually an aqua shiatsu, given in the Hot Pool. Don't want to get wet ? Then perhaps a'dry flotation' will do the trick for you. With this you have a choice of being wrapped in peat, goat's milk or grapeseed oil, as you relax on a soothing water cushion. It will set you back approximately $75 for 30 minutes. Twenty minutes in the alpine hay chamber costs $32. The 55 minutes Watsu is $ll0. Reservations for treatments are essential, well in advance of your visit

With nothing booked other than a day in the pools and steam rooms, I head for the roof again where the deliciously warm water is shimmering turquoise beneath a magical mother-of-pearl sky. Like those Roman soldiers before us, most bathers here now have come from work to rid themselves of the day's stress. I notice that everyone is smiling. Perhaps like me they are excited to be here, feeling remarkably relaxed, and extraordinarily privileged to be soaking in waters from the same source discovered by Bladud almost 3,000 years ago.


Getting there: Located 185 km from central London, Bath is approximately two hours by road or rail. from London. I used my Britrail flexipass, available only before departure for Britain, offering convenience as well as savings when travelling around Britain by train.

Getting Around: With so many narrow lanes and one-way streets your own wheels can only be an inconvenience here. A two-day pass for the Hop on-Hop off sightseeing busses will get you to all the important sites, and escorted city walking tours from The Pump Room are free.