Travel UK: Oh! The fun of a warm Bath

How did a steamy swamp become one of Europe's finest classical cities? With the help of Romans and friends.
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The Independent Culture
Bath is perhaps the oldest leisure centre in Britain. When the Romans arrived here in the middle of the first century they were delighted to find a hot spring - even if it was inconveniently bubbling away in the middle of a swamp. Until then the Celtic tribes had been content with the arrangements, a steaming swamp being an ideal mystical setting for the god of the spring.

The Romans were, well, a bit more like us. Why leave something alone when you can ruin it with machinery and building? Except at Bath they didn't ruin it at all. Ever on the look-out for an opportunity, they saw the potential of the natural arena in which Bath sits, the river and the spring. Hot springs meant healing, superstition, and money.

Hydraulic engineers were brought in and the spring was contained within a pool, complete with drainage sluice. On one side a bath suite was built and on the other a classical temple, dedicated to the Celtic god of the spring, Sulis, to whose attributes they added the Roman goddess of wisdom and war.

The result was a brilliant showcase Roman town in a brand new province. The baths and temple completely dominated the centre and over the next 300 years became increasingly elaborate. They must have been remarkably beautiful, if the remains of reliefs, entablature and columns are anything to go by.

The spring was enclosed in a vaulted cover building which, dripping with steam and mildew and decorated with ghostly statues shimmering in the gloom, was where the sick, infirm, hypochondriacal and opportunistic hurled their written invocations to the god to help them out.

You might expect them to have been bothered about truly major problems, but in reality they were mainly preoccupied with whoever had stolen their cloaks or pans. This didn't stop the judicial authorities recommending catastrophic punishments for the guilty. The theft of a pair of gloves was worth in Roman Britain, apparently, the loss of the crook's mind and his eyes.

All this has been revealed by the phenomenal degree of excavation which has gone on, although to anyone passing by, down Stall Street, there is all but nothing to see. One of the entrances to the Roman Baths Museum is in Stall Street where, incidentally, I saw the most extraordinary street busker I have ever encountered.

This man had, in a fit of startling originality, dressed himself in brilliant blue Biblical robes and even gone to the effort of painting his face and (apparently) his eyes. Equipped with a fan and a cassette machine playing weird wailing music, of the kind one might expect to hear in a cod ancient world spoof, he stood in a carved stone niche beside the Baths Museum with robes fluttering and fixed staring eyes.

It beats tiddling away on a flute with a manky cur wrapped up in a rag, and there are plenty of buskers like that in Bath.

For one ridiculous moment this figure from the pages of Leviticus made me forget everything else; then he smiled at some schoolgirls and the spell was broken.

Nearly all the Roman ruins are underground but they are brilliantly displayed. It's possible to walk around the Great Bath, still full of steaming water, and stare through the windows through which the Romans chucked their offerings. Many of these, miraculously, are on display, alongside the gravestones which record the deaths of men and women whose hopes of a cure were evidently dashed.

Of course Bath has never really changed. The Roman baths and the temple crumbled gently into the swamp once the province was abandoned to its fate, but the mud protected the ruins and at least one Saxon poet recorded his wonder at this work "of giants".

Now the most imposing building in Bath is the Abbey church of St Peter and St Paul, attached to a monastery which had been founded by 758. Its long-term future was guaranteed by location. The Romans had come here because this was along the line of their great trans-England road, the Fosse Way, which runs from Exeter to Lincoln.

The monumental Norman abbey church was built by John of Tours, created Bishop of Wells in 1088, and granted the abbey of Bath. But his work has gone too, comprehensively demolished and replaced by the present church in the 16th century.

It was the Dissolution of the monasteries that really set the pace for Bath as we know it. By passing control of hospitals to the city, coinciding with a gradually-increasing interest in medicine and science, the die was cast. Sick people had always come here but now fashion began to play a part, not least because it was becoming easier to journey across Britain.

In 1654 John Evelyn visited Bath and announced that the "King's Bath is esteemed the fairest in Europe" though the "streetes [are] narrow, uneven, and unpleasant".

Actually, walking round Bath at night is fairly reminiscent of this. I was very conscious of suspect-looking clusters of young men assembling in the southern part of the city. There is a threatening air to Bath in the dark which sits oddly alongside the daytime throngs of tourists.

All of which seems a far cry from the gentility of the Pump Room. The echoing clatter of the tea trays, cutlery, string quarter and subdued international chit-chat which resonates off the water outside gives this room the most distinctive acoustic in the country.

Bath was made fashionable by Queen Anne. In visiting the town she made it a place for "persons of quality" and she was followed by the society hangers-on, artisans, designers and architects of her day. These included John Wood, who created so much of the distinctive architecture which appealed to the wealthy, such as Queen's Square in the north-west of the city. Appropriately, its magnificent neo-classical facade recalls something of Bath's Roman heyday.

His son executed a design by his father for The Circus in 1758, following it with the most celebrated structure in 18th-century Bath, the Royal Crescent. Redevelopment of the Pump Room in 1790 started the lengthy process of exposing the Roman foundations of the town.

It's a tragedy that it should be so difficult to appreciate this side of Bath today. The Pulteney bridge, built by Robert Adam, is drowned in traffic and practically impossible to appreciate through the throng of garish buses which sweep alongside, not least because of some of the incomprehensibly vile modern architecture which litters the town.

The latter is thanks largely to Hitler's Baedeker raids of April 1942 which destroyed or damaged at least 3,000 buildings - although city planners of the Sixties joined in the fun.

Bath suffered a decline in the 19th century though the coming of the railway provided the city with another purpose: industry. But it was the uncovering of the Roman baths in 1880 that really led to the city's popularity as a tourist centre today.

Bath is now a strange mix. The location is splendid and much of the architecture enthralling, but the traffic spoils the atmosphere. Much of the accommodation was thrown up as quickly as possible, and it shows. But take a stroll uphill to Lansdown Crescent. Here I found sheep grazing below in the natural amphitheatre. For once it looked like the England of my imagination.