The Roman Baths in Bath are Britain’s only natural occurring hot springs. Roman baths were common, but most were heated by steam caused by heating the water and circulating it under rooms elevated by stacks of flat rock. Thermal springs were uncommon and so when naturally occurring hot springs were found, the pre-Christian Romans attached a deity to them. In this instance, Minerva was designated the goddess and an elaborate temple to honor her is the center of the Roman Baths.
Bath is 114 miles due west of London. It is about a 2 ½ hour drive by car or by tour bus. There are plenty of good accommodations in Bath if you choose to stay there overnight.
The town of Bath is quite different than other British locations I visited. The common architecture of Bath is brown stone. That is not unusual as so many Victorian homes or villages are, but what stood out to me was the lack of contrast. There was no color! As I drove through Bath and around the center of town, I found it unusual that there were beautiful old village buildings nestled in a valley surrounded by hills, but there was no color. The town is nice and the river is a beautiful area to picnic or to walk near but, unlike most British towns, there was little of the color that makes British villages and towns so unique.
Finding the historical attraction is never the issue, but finding parking is. On a recent visit to Windsor Castle I forgot to “pay and display” as I was in a hurry to make sure I got into the facility before it closed. When I returned it cost me $200 (£120) to get my car back. Do not make this mistake. Most parking lots are not this aggressive, but it does happen.
I have been fortunate in most of my travels to have beautiful sunshine; however my luck had run out. It is difficult to find stores open on Sunday so before I was able to buy a small umbrella I was soaked. This is another lesson for the tourist. Carry a small umbrella with you at all times. There is no reason to pack one unless you just want to. They are available at most convenient and clothes stores and are inexpensive.
What I didn’t realize was how close the Bath Cathedral was to the Roman Baths. After going through the baths I realized how important it must have been to put a Cathedral next to one of the biggest pagan monuments in Britain. The baths were continually in use since the Romans left after 400 AD but the temple was knocked down. The stones were used to build other sites and eventually political leaders and royalty claimed the baths as their own. Even the church used the hot baths as part of a healing program along with prayer.
The entrance to the Roman Baths is actually a building referred to as a museum. A building shell was placed over the site of the Minerva Temple and the hot baths. As you walk through the facility there are rooms full of video presentations, small models of the baths and archaeological finds from in and around the baths. One of the largest hordes of Roman coins found in Britain was found less than a decade ago about 150 yards from the facility.
Walking through the temple area is unique as they have installed a floor above the ruins with graphics, stonework and video to make you feel as if you are walking through the temple during Roman-Britain times. One of the most unique finds is the gold plated mask of Minerva found in one of the springs. The statue of Minerva has been recreated in the temple area and the mask placed upon her head.
It is interesting to see what they have on display at the museum that was discarded and found in the hot springs. Upon leaving the temple there is an area of the museum dedicated to the art of Roman engineering. It shows how the baths were made and developed.
As you get to the lower ground you can see the steaming baths, first through the windows and then as you walk outside. There is a large open area with steam coming off of the water-filled bathing area that is the size of a neighborhood swimming pool. You are able to walk around and take pictures as people are standing or sitting nearby taking in the sight. The greenness of the water surprised me until the guide in my hand told me that this is because of direct sunlight on the pool; however, certainly not on the day of my visit. The direct sunlight causes algae to grow in the pool, whereas, during Roman times there was a large arch that covered the baths keeping the sunlight out.
On either side of the center pool are smaller baths. One room has a cold bath filled with waters that are not thermal heated for the brave bathers who love the hot/cold bath. On the other side are small rooms where bathers rinsed off before going to the main bath and a smaller room where massages were given. There is even a small pool that was used for healing. There is a ledge and the pool is deep enough, for those who could stand, to come up to their neck. The church used these pools to help the infirm and sick to feel better. There is also a small pool next to the temple that was off limits to Roman bathers. It was the bath reserved for the goddess Minerva. Later this segregated bath was used by the church for healing as well as British royalty during medieval times.
The water still runs hot. The small stream can still be seen as it runs under a stone stair case and into the largest bath. Men and women in Roman times bathed together. Slaves tended to the needs of the Romans and their families while at the bath. During Roman times it was an important place for social, political and religious purposes. The baths were used frequently by the Roman soldiers, politicians, businessman and their families.
Before leaving the museum and baths there is an opportunity to taste the thermal water with a small cup from a fountain. It was bottled for many years and sold through Britain as a cure all. The water does taste warm and has a mineral flavor to it, but was not as bad as I thought it would be.
As you leave the museum the stairs take you to the Pump Room which is a grand restaurant above the baths. It is an area built by royalty centuries after the Romans left that has been converted to a restaurant. I was too wet and dirty to try the food, but if you visit, take the time to enjoy the food and try a bottle of the thermal spring.
The Background and History
There is a story of one of the late Roman Emperors being asked by a barbarian chieftain why he bathed once a day. The Roman emperor told him it was because he was too busy to bathe twice a day. Bathing was an extremely important social, business and political activity in Roman society.
The Roman Baths are the best preserved ancient bath and temple complex in northern Europe. The site is listed as a World Heritage site and is the only site in Britain where thermal springs emerge from deep underground. At this location in the first century AD, the Romans built the most dramatic suite of public buildings in Roman Britain.
On display at the museum next to the springs are unique artifacts found over the last 300 years, along with coins and curses thrown into the springs as petitions to Minerva. There are many ornate architectural stone fragments that have been found of the magnificent Temple of Sulis Minerva.
In 1979-80 major work was done in the Sacred Spring that lies beneath what is known as the King’s Bath. This work significantly contributed to the knowledge and understanding of the purposes, meaning and usage of the Roman Baths. They were built around the thermal spring and then used for comfort, cure and cleansing.
The Temple of Sulis Minerva, Sulis was the local diety and Minerva a Roman deity, was a masterpiece that rivaled temples found in Rome. The coins and curses thrown into the sacred spring and inscriptions of local people and traveling pilgrims illustrate the power of the hot springs to stir the superstitious and imagination of people in the ancient world. Curses were written in great detail on small, rectangular pieces of tin and thrown into the sacred spring in hopes of revenge by the goddess Minerva. Many of these curses are on display at the museum today.
In the 1st century BC, the area around Bath was inhabited by an Iron Age tribe called the Dobunni. They believed their hot spring was sacred to the Goddess Sulis who had healing powers. Their religious leaders, the Druids, were responsible for communication with the goddess. They believed she needed to be placated with offerings.
In 43 AD the Romans landed with the intent to conquer. Life for the Dobunni changed dramatically. The springs were in the military zone controlled by the Romans. The pre-Christian Romans were sensitive to the local gods and goddesses of those they conquered. They believed these local deities were powerful and to be respected. However, the Romans knew the Druids, who conducted human sacrifice and had the ability to create trouble among the locals, had to be annihilated.
In AD 60, a rebellion broke out led by the British Queen Boudica. Thousands were killed and the response of the Roman military was uncontrolled. The province lay in ruins. It took almost 10 years for the area to be rebuilt. It was probably during this period the Romans decided to take the native sanctuary of Sulis and turn it into a magnificent curative establishment that became the Temple of Sulis Minerva.
Roman engineering went to work. The construction of the baths could only commence after the area near the spring had been drained. The precision used by Roman engineers to drain the swamp and build the baths is a marvel. First, they surrounded the spring with large wooden poles driven deep into the soft earth. Next, they created a massive reservoir around the spring and lastly, enclosed the spring with sheets of metal to keep the reservoir sealed. The water to the baths was fed from the reservoir.
By 75 AD the baths and temple complex were complete. The largest pool was 4 ½ feet deep with deep steps on all sides. The original lead sheets that keep the pool from leaking are still lining the largest pool.
Belief in the healing power of the springs was renewed in the Middle Ages with the spread of the legend of the prehistoric Prince Bladud, son of King Ludhudibras, who lived in 9th century BC. Bladud supposedly caught leprosy and was banished from the royal court. He took up work as a country swineherd. He noticed that when the hogs wallowed in a steaming swamp in a valley bottom they emerged cleansed of their warts and sores. He plunged into the thermal quagmire and scrambled out cured. The prince was accepted back into his father’s court and the city of Bath was founded around the spring in gratitude from his father.
The water which flows through the baths today fell as rain on nearby Mendip Hills many thousands of years ago. It permeates down through the limestone aquifers to a depth of between 8,000 feet to 13,000 feet (2,700 to 4,350 meters) where natural heat raises the temperature to between 147 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit (64-97 centigrade). Under the pressure, the heated water rises to the surface along fissures and faults through the limestone to the surface beneath Bath.
The hot springs flow at 3.5 gallons per second or 250,000 gallons a day. The temperature is a constant 115 degrees Fahrenheit with 43 minerals present in the water. Calcium and sulfate are the main dissolved minerals along with sodium and chloride. The bubbling in the baths is caused by escaping gases in the water.
The baths were used continually after Roman times. During medieval times, the thermal springs were knows as The King’s Bath. Between the 13th century and the 20th century there were modifications made to the original baths for personal and commercial purposes.
Ratings (Roman Britain)
Category Rating: A
Overall Rating: #1
Comments: The Romans were amazing and seeing the Roman Baths is worthwhile. The city of Bath was less appealing to me. I didn’t come to Britain expecting to see so much Roman influence, but they played such an important role in early British history and much of that early influence remains today.