Roman visitors, Georgian socialites and Victorian geriatrics once flocked for restorative treatments to Britain's now disused spas. But soon, reports Lesley Gillilan, the healing waters may treat again
Click to follow
In a gloomy chamber in the redundant Royal Bath in Bath Spa, Paul Simons, head of the City's Economic Development and Tourism department, demonstrated an antiquated piece of hydrotherapy equipment, last in use circa 1978. "I think it was intended for arm bathing," he told me, as he laid an appropriate limb in a stone basin.

It is hard to see what possible benefits could be had from arm-bathing - even if the said water is 10,000-year-old rain, naturally heated, loaded with miner- als and springing romantically from fissures of carboniferous limestone beneath the Mendip Hills. But walking through the dimly-lit passages of the 1770s leisure centre, it is even harder to believe that the building and its now- crumbling treatment rooms were ever associated with health and well-being.

The air is laden with damp, dust and neglect. The interior walls are lined with a polychrome of cracked and peeling paint, in shades so dated they are almost trendy (duck egg, lime and acidic yellow). A couple of curling paper notices pointing out "Decimus Burton's Wall" and "Sir John Wood the Younger's Wall" are reminders that this is a structure worth preserving, but the boarded-up building is so dungeon-like, you half expect to see Terry Waite chained to the historic masonry.

The torture chamber atmosphere is completed by a rusting pre-war contraption, designed for dunking rheumatic patients into mineral-rich waters by way of metal chair attached to a pulley and crane. Sky-lit by a glazed dome, it still hangs there over an empty stone pool which once provided members of a Georgian bathing club with part of a traditional five-stage Roman sequence: cold, tepid, very hot, cold plunge and steam. Now the pool's porous sandstone lining is not only stained orange by heavy metal deposits but is probably still infected by the killer bug which caused the demise of this Grade II (star) listed building. Needless to say, it is no longer open to the public, not even as a museum.

The Royal Bath, the neighbouring Cross Bath (tiny, Grade I listed, open- air pool built by the Georgians over Roman cisterns) and the Beau Street Bath (a 1920s swimming pool) closed down in 1978 when a potentially lethal amoeba was found in the spring waters. The discovery followed the death of a young girl who died of a rare strain of meningitis 10 days after using the facilities. Whether or not the rogue bacteria was responsible was never ascertained, but her death brought Bath's long, illustrious history of spa-water treatment - which had soothed and cleansed generations of Celts, Romans, medieval pilgrims, Georgian socialites and Victorian geriatrics - to an abrupt end.

Nearly 20 years later, and Britain's World Heritage City is still a spa in name only. The loss hasn't had much effect on local tourism - the pristine Georgian city attracts more than 1.5 million visitors a year, more than half from abroad. But while they shuffle from the foundations of ruined Roman temple to magnificent Palladian crescent, there are no invitations to get their kit off and wallow in the waters which, says Paul Simons, "is the very soul of the city and its rationale - the Romans didn't build a military base here, they built a holiday camp." Now it's a themed heritage centre in which tourism's pilgrims can take a ritual bathe in the past.

The Roman Baths museum gift shop offers packs of miniature centurians, Romanesque bath sachets, Aquae Sulis T-shirts and bottles of Bath water, which at pounds 2.75 a go, is marketed as a restorative for sufferers of "rhumes, agues, lethargies, apoplexies and the scratch." At 45p a glass, you can take the waters in the late 18th-century Pump Rooms where it is served warm and tastes of iron filings with a hint of sulphate.

The museum itself is a shrine to Roman plumbing, neo-classical architecture and modern, hi-tech tourism. Pay your money and you are handed a personal audio handset, like an elongated mobile phone, through which a syrupy Mr Kipling voice tells you that "you are looking at 2,500 years of history" and so on. As you journey around it, the historical narrative is enlivened with appropriate sound effects such as a splash and a shriek .

Computerised virtual reality images take you inside Roman Aquae Sulis and its vast classical bathing complex which was, we are told, the size of two football pitches. You can see the remains of a first-century sauna; feel the heat of the water as it gushes through a Roman overflow arch from the "Sacred Spring"; you can stand on Roman paving stones and look up at the Georgian Corinthian columns, colonnades and stone statues which encircle the Great Bath. It's all very impressive, but the image that lingers is of coach loads of tourists peering into the steamy vapour rising from the surface of the green waters, longing to do as the Romans did.

And who can blame them? By a miracle of nature, the 250,000 gallons of water produced daily by Bath's three thermal springs, gushes to the surface at an inviting 46C. Aside from Buxton's tepid 11C waters, the city owns the only naturally hot springs in Britain - indeed, they are among the warmest in Europe - and whether or not you have faith in the water's healing properties, it seems a terrible waste not to use it.

The City of Bath agrees but since 1983, when the drilling of a new borehole enabled the supply of bacteria- free water, a succession of embryonic schemes to resuscitate the baths have failed at the drawing-board stage. The latest, however, is looking more promising. Subject to a successful bid for Millennium Commission funds, Bath and North-East Somerset Council, along with a consortium of trusts, European operators and private investors, intends to put the spa back into Bath.

The proposed scheme, costing over pounds 12m, plans to restore the Royal Bath and the Cross Bath and demolish the Beau Street swimming pool to make way for a "carefully crafted building in steel, glass and Bath stone" courtesy of architect, Nicholas Grimshaw. The resulting complex will provide a state-of-the-art health and leisure facility, housing spring-fed hydrotherapy baths, steam rooms, saunas and therapy centres. No design drawings are yet available, but Grimshaw's new-tech vision - at the heart of the scheme - proposes a zero-fossil-fuel building (by using solar and thermal water energy) that "celebrates water and light".

"It is a remarkable opportunity to make a contemporary architectural statement in the middle of Bath," says Paul Simons. "This is supposed to be a city of architecture, yet it has no good 20th century buildings." The scheme, if it comes off, is also regarded as the first step of a renaissance for Britain's ailing spa culture. "The revival of Bath Spa is about the revival of all spas in the UK," says Simons, the local representative of the British Spa Federation.

Its 11 members - Buxton, Harrogate, Leamington Spa, Llandrindod Wells, Malvern, Droitwich Spa, Woodhall Spa, Strathpeffer, Tunbridge Wells, Cheltenham Spa and, of course, Bath - were all purpose-built health resorts, frequented by generations of gouty pilgrims. From the mid-18th century to the late- 19th they were among the most fashionable in Europe. Their wells still spew out gallons of water and you can still knock back tumblers of the stuff (Harrogate's smells like bad eggs and tastes equally foul; Leamington's is said to be mildly laxative) but the spas themselves have limped into decline, leaving a legacy of handsome but redundant and, in some cases, empty period bathing pavilions. While 300,000 Britons left the country last year for a soak in one of Europe's still-flourishing spa resorts, most of ours are little more than museum-pieces.

In Buxton, which was developed by the Fifth Duke of Devonshire in the late-18th century as a rugged northern rival to Bath, the pump room is boarded up and the marble-lined pools in the old Natural Baths - housed in a vault beneath John Carr's Grade I listed Crescent - are cracked and sprouting vegetation. The Crescent has recently been rescued form the brink of collapse and the Peak District town is seeking heritage Lottery money to fund a facelift but, at the moment, all Buxton has to offer the bather is a spring-fed municipal swimming pool. Which is more than you can say for Tunbridge Wells where a shopping precinct was built in place of the pump room.

The wonderful Turkish Bath in Harrogate is virtually the only relic of our time-warped spa culture to survive. The place hasn't closed since it was built in the 1890s and you can still get hot, cold and steamed- up in a suite of Turkish-style chambers lined with marble slabs, hand- painted friezes and a rich mosaic of tiles. Run by the council, and costing pounds 7.50 per session, the complex has three original dry heat rooms, a Russian steam room and an ice-cold plunge pool, a modern sauna and a rest room in which towel-swathed bathers relax beneath Saracenic arches with cups of north-country tea.

The Turkish suite, however, doesn't make use of any of Harrogate's numerous mineral springs. The original Royal Bath House closed in the 1950s - and judging by a turn-of-the-century guide to the facilities, it's just as well. The Handbook to Harrogate prescribes a punishing regime of liver packs, needle douches and a range of baths from sitz and carbonic acid gas to slipper and mineral peat. Users of the Crane Bath, says the handbook are "apt to become frightened" but what about the Dowsing Radiant Heat and Light Bath? Users of this electrical contraption, which exposed the patient to luminous rays, "corresponding with the cooking of a joint in front of the fire" were, I shouldn't wonder, apt to become dead.

The bath house, which contained some of this cranky equipment is currently being considered for contentious redevelopment which plans to combine a health spa and a casino.

The British spa's modern dilemma is classically illustrated by Leamington's recent history. Until 1990, the Royal Pump rooms operated as a hydrotherapeutic medical centre and, in its final years, the facility treated around 50,000 patients for arthritis, rheumatism and other mobility problems. The place finally closed down because, not only did the building need pounds 1m spent on improvements, but also the NHS withdrew the centre's main source of funding. A proposal to rip down part of the pump rooms and add a new health hydro met fierce opposition from conservationists who spoke up so loudly, they deterred a private sector investor.

Our Continental neighbours, meanwhile, continue to invest in spas as, not only are they more inclined to accept the principal that spring-water bathing is good for you, but also Europe's public and private health schemes fund the treatments. Paul Simons suggests that a provision of the social chapter should soon enable British people to demand spa treatment on the NHS. And there is a genuine demand for modern health hydros - as is demonstrated by the success of privately-run Brine Bath complex in Droitwich.

Droitwich Spa, an unprepossessing Worcestershire town with little else to recommend it, is home to one of the saltiest natural waters in the world. Ten times saltier than ordinary sea water, it is pumped up from an underground lake, and has been since pre-Roman times. Like the Dead Sea, it is incredibly buoyant - mid-Victorian bathers were particularly keen on languishing in Droitwich brine. In 1985, the town's shabby 1830s brine bath was demolished and replaced with a new one. Built as part of a private hospital, run by Amicus Healthcare, it offers medical treatments for skin complaints, sports injuries and post-operative recovery alongside relaxation sessions for recreational users. For pounds 5.50, you can combine a sauna with a horizontal float in a large tub of warm brine which, from a therapeutic point of view, relieves muscular aches without straining stiff joints. The only effort involved is getting out.

Since the centre is already taking weekend bookings for November and its physiotherapy treatments are funded by private health schemes, you would think that Bath's intended role as the exemplar of a British spa revival has been pre-empted by Droitwich. The brine bath pool however, cannot comfortably take more than 18 bodies at a time and the building itself has a rather disappointing municipal- medical flavour which detracts from the appeal of bobbing around in the overflow of a subterranean sea. Funding permitting, Bath's 21st-century vision may be up and running before Droitwich gets to grips with a planned expansion.

According to Paul Simons, even Europe's spas see Bath's revival plans as exemplary. Most continental spas are now associated with wrinkled geriatrics in bathing hats dragging arthritic limbs from one clinical hydro hotel to another. And while they are in danger of slipping into a time-warp, Bath has the opportunity to combine a miracle of nature with Grade I listed history and Millennium landmark architecture with contemporary health and leisure - more restorative Roman soak than curative Victorian sitz douche. Though the Millennium Commission's decision will not be made until September, a spa operator has already been appointed.



Open daily, from 9am-6pm (August 8pm-10pm). Entrance costs pounds 6 (OAPs pounds 5.60; children pounds 3.60). Telephone 01225 477000 ext 7785 for details. For the Bath Spa Project call 01225 477702.


Open daily (times vary). Spa tickets cost pounds 5.50 (brine bath and sauna) or pounds 10 per couple. You must book in advance on 01905 794894.


Open daily from 9am-9pm, and offers a timetable of ladies, gentlemen and mixed sex sessions. Turkish and sauna cost pounds 7.50 and the centre offers additional treatments at extra cost. Telephone: 01423 562498.