It’s been a decade since thermal bathing returned to Bath, England’s historic spa town. Now, it’s a new five-star hotel with hot spring water of its own that’s making a splash.
Photographs by Martin Westlake
I am as wet as one might reasonably expect to be in a place called Bath. It’s a drizzly December night in this moist corner of southwest England, but that hasn’t deterred me or four dozen other bathers from wallowing in the open-air thermal pool on the roof of the Thermae Bath Spa. I feel a little like an onsen monkey, immersed to my shoulders in 34°C water as wreaths of steam waft up to the chill black sky. Couples canoodle at the pool’s edge against a backdrop of church spires and Georgian rooftops, or take turns under the gleaming chrome pipe that gushes with mineral-laden water from Britain’s only hot springs, themselves fed by an aquifer buried deep in the limestone beneath the city. Never mind all the cornflower-blue pool noodles or the fact that we’re atop a big glass-wrapped cube amid an otherwise remarkably intact 18th-century townscape: we’re doing as the Romans do, or rather did, back when they founded a settlement here called Aquae Sulis and built baths (and temples) of their own. Two thousand years later, I find myself wondering what they would have made of the place today.
Modern Bath is primarily a city that serves visitors, be they college students (who account for one in five residents during the school season, according to my walking guide Tony Abbott) or tourists (more than seven million annually, mostly day-trippers). This was true in Georgian times too, when it became the fashion among London’s idle rich to decamp to Bath in the winter. Here, they attended concerts and balls, gambled and shopped, and drank or bathed in the curative waters, which promised relief from gout, palsy, infertility, and assorted other ailments. Orchestrated largely by a Welsh dandy named Beau Nash, Bath’s reign as England’s “premier resort of frivolity and fashion” didn’t outlast the 18th century, but it did bequeath the city its gorgeous Palladian terrace houses and porticoed public buildings, all clad in the local sandy-beige limestone known as Bath stone.
Today inscribed as a World Heritage Site, the city’s elegant architectural endowment was, however, almost its undoing; during World War II, Bath fell victim to the so-called Baedeker raids—Luftwaffe bombing missions that targeted strategically unimportant but historically significant English cities given top rating in Baedeker’s Great Britain, a popular German guidebook. The 1942 attacks killed upward of 400 people and destroyed hundreds of buildings in what is remembered locally as the Bath Blitz. Miraculously, most of the city’s architectural treasures—including the high-Gothic Bath Abbey, the Royal Crescent, and the ancient Roman Baths—escaped relatively unscathed.
I learn about this on a morning tour with Abbott, who also recounts some of his hometown’s more recent misfortunes, notably the decline of its manufacturing industry (the last big employer, crane-makers Stothert & Pitt, shut down in 1989) and the closure of its public baths for nearly three decades when a teenage girl died of amoebic meningitis after using the facilities. That was in 1978. “I swam in these waters myself as a kid,” Abbott says. “Losing the baths was like losing the soul of the city.”
But tourism has continued to keep Bath afloat, as witnessed by an abundance of museums and any number of establishments that trade off local heritage, like Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House, whose famed buns are said to be made from a recipe dating back to the 17th century. Jane Austen is on the agenda too, with tributes to her stays in Bath enshrined in a narrow Georgian townhouse with period exhibits and a twee Regency-style tearoom. (The city also holds an annual festival in her honor, bonnets and all.)
All this might come off as fusty were there not so much else going on. Since 2002, the churchyard of Bath Abbey has hosted a Christmas market that packs in more than 150 stands selling everything from mulled wine and gingerbread to hand-knitted alpaca scarves and deco-rative glass objects. Restaurants like two-year-old Clayton’s Kitchen, with its farm-sourced meats and amazing heritage vegetables, are bringing new verve to the dining scene. The recently restored Holburne Museum, sited across the Avon River at the far end of Great Pulteney Street, now sports a striking glass-and-ceramic extension, while the ruins of the Roman Baths, one of northern Europe’s most important sites from antiquity, have benefited from a five-year, US$8 million renovation that was completed in 2010.