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I had to pick my time carefully to visit the city of Bath. I wanted to go before the bulk of the tourists came, but after the rush of Christmas crowds around the many shops. But, that’s the way it’s always been, for visitors have been coming to Bath since before the Romans came, over 2,000 years ago.
Bath is the only place in Britain with natural hot springs. They aren’t of volcanic origin; they are heated by water passing over the limestone of the nearby Mendip Hills. Ask any American soldier … he uses the same principle in the heat packs used to warm up his field rations.
The waters flow at 13 litres a second, at a constant temperature of 46ºC (115ºF) and contain 43 different minerals. So, in addition to a refreshing soak, they’re also medicinal, whether bathed in or drunk.
In the Pump Room, I tasted some of the water … and wished I hadn’t. It was slightly warm, and tasted as if someone had boiled up a handful of old pennies in it. Of course, I only tried it out of curiosity, rather than need. I wasn’t suffering from any illness or disorder, so can’t say whether it’s curative or not!
What I’d come to see was the building that draws most visitors to Bath. The Roman baths weren’t just for getting clean. They were a place for discussing business, gossiping or just hanging out and meeting friends. The baths usually consisted of a tepidarium, or warm room, a caldarium or hot room, followed by a plunge in a cold pool. Some baths had a laconium, providing a dry heat, like a Scandinavian sauna.
Normally, fires tended by slaves provided heat … but here was naturally-heated water, with the bonus of a plunge in the curative waters.
While the 18th-century Georgians dug the foundations for what we see today, they uncovered several Roman artefacts. From these, a good idea was obtained of what the baths looked like. They were built next to a temple dedicated to their goddess, Minerva, as well as to the British goddess Sulis, to whom the springs were held sacred. An illustration of the old British proverb that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’!
Sadly, the Romans didn’t leave their tradition of cleanliness. A Roman emperor once said that he took a daily bath because he didn’t have time to take more. A thousand years later, Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603, is said to have taken a bath once a month … whether she needed it or not!
Some Britons didn’t take a bath at all. The springs remained open, though, for those who wished to drink the waters.
Until the mid-20th Century, most houses didn’t even have a bathroom. The usual method of bathing was to fill a portable iron tub with hot water in front of the fire. This happened once a week, usually, although coal miners could bathe at the end of every shift, receiving an allowance of coal to heat water for this purpose.
Although I never lived in a house without a bathroom, my grandparents did. Showers weren’t usual till the 1980s. Fortunately, I have a bath and a shower … and my philosophy is ‘a bath for relaxing; a shower if you just want to get clean in a hurry’
But, the tradition of the communal bath hasn’t quite caught on here yet. But, with the introduction of the jacuzzi and sauna in some places, maybe it will?
Maybe we’ll even go back to bathing as the Romans did?