All roads lead to Bath’s Roman-built spa complex, where you can “take the waters” and soothe the soul. The question is: will you drink it?
In the dimly lit chambers of Bath’s fabulously restored Roman Baths complex, a group of French schoolchildren gather around a running tap, filling paper cones with water. One after the other they nervously take a sip. And each time the reaction is the same: grimaces and the phrase, “Oooh, c’est dégueulasse!” It’s one I’ve heard before from my Parisienne girlfriend (and not just when she’s critiquing my culinary efforts). Basically it means, “It’s disgusting!” Hailed for their curative properties, the mineral-laden waters of Bath are certainly an acquired taste – orally at least. Yet sampling them is a must in the Roman Baths (Stall Street), the old epicentre of Aquae Sulis, as the Romans called this postcard-perfect spa city. It’s located on Britain’s only natural hot springs, amid the rolling green hills of Somerset (a 90-minute train trip from London).
In its glory days, I’d have happily eschewed drinking the (vaguely sulphurous) water for a dip in the complex’s steaming, open-air Great Bath, which is fringed by soaring columns and statues of Roman emperors and perched above a temple dedicated to Sulis Minerva, the goddess of health and wisdom. You can’t bathe in the Great Bath nowadays – its waters are completely untreated and unsafe to drink or even touch – but you can soak up a slew of fascinating historical titbits on a DIY tour of this relic-strewn complex-cum-museum. Listen to an audio guide featuring commentary from bestselling author (and Bath lover) Bill Bryson and do as the French schoolchildren did and end your visit by sipping the safe, drinkable spa water from the tap near the exit.
Although the Roman Baths may not satisfy your every desire, Bath – where springs yield more than a million litres of 46°C water daily – is flush with pampering alternatives. Wellness stores and spas abound, including the popular Thermae Bath Spa (Hot Bath Street). Housed in a gleaming glass-and-limestone building a two-minute stroll from the Roman Baths, it offers more than 40 treatment packages, aromatic steam rooms, sleek indoor baths and an alfresco rooftop pool, where I plunge into spring water cooled to a therapeutic 33.5°C.
As bubbling jets tickle my body, I admire Bath’s honey-toned skyline – much of which mushroomed in Georgian times, when the city’s ancient spa culture was revived and the great and good flocked here to “take the waters”. Queen Anne came to soothe her gout, Horatio Nelson convalesced here after losing an arm in the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Arthur Phillip – the first governor of NSW – liked Bath so much that he retired here.
While Thermae Bath Spa is endearingly egalitarian – you’ll rub shoulders with everyone from backpackers to yummy mummies – other establishments evoke a more exclusive air. There’s the Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa, an esteemed landmark tucked away off Bath’s most photogenic street; The Bath Priory (Weston Road), housed in a Georgian manor in the city’s north-west; and, just behind Thermae, the new Gainsborough Bath Spa hotel.
Opened in July and named after 18th-century British artist and Bath resident Thomas Gainsborough, this dapper affair occupies two former hospital buildings and is the only hotel spa in Bath to tap directly into the city’s springs. Guests can blend their own aromatics from a “bar” of herbs and oils then do a self-guided circuit, warming up in 35-40°C thermal pools and saunas, and cooling down with cold showers and by rubbing the body with crushed lavender ice.
A range of private specialist treatments is available, including rejuvenating facials and magnesium wraps, Swedish massages, Malay aromatherapy and Japanese acupressure.
I opt for the intriguing Freedom aquatic body therapy (hey, when in Bath...). The key is to “relax, let yourself go”, says therapist Kabir. “You have to trust me,” he adds as we enter the palatial main atrium pool. “Close your eyes. Forget the past, forget the future; just think about the present.”
For the next 45 minutes, I (try to) do precisely this as Kabir gracefully manoeuvres me, twisting and kneading my limbs, torso, neck and occasionally head, and sporadically taking me under water (it’s okay; he tells me when to hold my breath).
It’s a refreshing, dream-like experience, as if I’m meditating while doing aquatic ballet.
After a post-spa “shot” of hot chocolate – which is the opposite of dégueulasse – I dine at The Gainsborough’s restaurant, where chef Johann Lafer masterfully blends Asian flavours with locally sourced English products. Devonshire duck breast with red cabbage and teriyaki jus is delicious and before I know it, I’m eyeing a postprandial doze.
Conveniently, my bed is upstairs. The hotel’s 99 rooms have an old-fashioned elegance, with two-poster beds and rustic Georgian countryside scenes woven into the headboards. There are swish contemporary notes, too, with iPod docking stations, radios with Bluetooth connectivity and flat-screen HD televisions. If you fancy a spa around the clock, plump for a room that has in-bathroom access to the thermal waters.
Relaxing in the tub with a good book – Jane Austen’s Bath-based novel, Persuasion, say – isn’t a bad way to spend an evening. ￼