TORCHLIT SUMMER EVENINGS AT THE ROMAN BATHS
Each summer, the Roman Baths in Bath, open their doors to late night visitors who can explore them from a different perspective, by the soft glow of firelight. This is the ideal way for the Slow Traveller to experience this hugely popular tourist attraction - without the crowds and the noise of the daytime visitors and with plenty of time to explore the museum and the baths.
The Roman Baths are a much visited tourist attraction in the south of England, with hordes of people, often in large groups, descending on this soft honey coloured stone building, pushing their way through the museum, until the Great Bath is reached.
The most famous of the baths with its columns, well worn paving, statues of the great and the good of Rome, the Abbey Tower looming in the background and the rectangle of murky yet vivid green water, is where the cameras come out and the posing starts – group shots, looking mystically into the distance shots, head over the shoulder shots, arms in the air shots, as people compete for the prime locations to get the best angles and the best photo for their Instagram account.
The baths are regularly crowded, a never ending stampede of people that can’t help but detract from the experience, leaving little space for reflection or for amazement at the sheer age and timeless beauty of the place. However, in the summer months, the baths keep their doors open until 10pm and that flood of visitors turns into a gentle trickle.
The tour groups are long gone, there’s no one charging around just wanting to tick the baths off their high speed English bucket list; instead these evening visitors have the time and inclination to just wander, to sit and appreciate. Dusk falls, the fire from the torches flickers and reflects in the water below, the subtle lighting brings out the shadows and visitors can just relax for a while.
It is the perfect time to visit.
My son and I first did an evening visit two years ago, and he asked to go back again this summer. I was only too happy to oblige, booked our tickets and a hotel, and off we went.
Your visit starts in the ornate reception, and if you have booked your tickets online beforehand, you can join the webtickets line and get in really quickly, there’s no waiting around in the epic queues that stretch round the streets outside in the daytime.
This room was originally built as a concert hall, and seems suitably fitting for an entrance to such an incredible place. Before leaving the room, collect an audio guide, which are available in nine languages and which are also suitable for children, who can listen to different, more child-friendly recordings than the adults.
As you exit the hall, go straight onto the outdoor terrace, which takes you on a walkway around the top of the Great Bath. Here you get your first glimpse of the green waters of the Great Bath below, from the vantage point of the Victorian statues which line up around the edge, Roman Emperors and Generals who look so imperial, yet so benign, in well worn, soft edged stone. The ornate Abbey Tower rises in one corner, looking over the baths for that classic shot that appears in so many photos.
After admiring the view and being surprised at just how close to the street outside you are, realising that the baths are in fact all quite far below ground level, you descend into the museum, and it is here that you learn about the long and varied history of the spring water and the baths which grew up around it.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE ROMAN BATHS
The museum is a well laid out exploratory journey which starts with the spring before the Romans even arrived in England. Coins were found in the waters from two of the Celtic Iron Age tribes that had lived here long before – the Dobunni and Durotriges. To them, the mists and steam that arises from the hot water as it meets the cold air would have made it look otherworldly, the orange water bubbling out of the oak tree-lined grove was sacred to them and here they worshipped the Celtic goddess Sul, the goddess of medicine, fertility and healing. The coins found in the spring from their offerings show ships, heads and triple tailed horses and these were their way of communicating with her.
When the Romans arrived in England, with their programme of not so much invasion as acquisition, they kept the name Sulis and Romanised the belief, merging Sul with one of their own gods, Minerva. Romans across their Empire had bathing as a key feature of daily life, it was a very social activity and a great equaliser, as people from the highest to the lowest would bathe together. This source of naturally hot water was a great gift to the Romans as they had no need to heat the water, and the town of Aqua Sulis built up around the springs.
The museum takes you round the finds and fragments of their time here.
L: The ‘Beau Street Hoard’ is the largest coin hoard ever found in a Roman town, just 150m from the baths containing 17,000 silver coins dating from 32 BC – 275 AD.
M: Fragments of dedications, gravestone and sculptures have all been found at the site and are now on display in the museum.
R: Curse tablets were thrown into the spring, asking for assorted, often gruesome, revenge on people who had wronged the writer. These ones are so important that they are on the UNESCO Memory register, the only objects from Roman Britain which are.
The baths were originally constructed in 60-70AD, only 20 years or so after the Roman invasion. Initially, engineers drove wooden piles into the mud around the spring and surrounded the spring with a lead-lined stone chamber. Originally open, a roof was added in the 2nd century AD with statues and columns, to enhance the mystery of the spring for the visitors.
The spring was in a corner of the courtyard of the Temple Sulis Minerva and was where people threw in their offerings throughout the Roman period. It fed the baths complex, which developed and changed over the following centuries with extra baths and treatments rooms added. The excess water all drained off to the River Avon through a Roman constructed drain, which is still in use today.
L: The gilt bronze head of Minerva. It is a rare find and probably dates from the 1st century AD. It would have stood within her temple besides the spring.
R: The spring overflow carries water from the source to the drain which leads out to the River Avon. It is orange due to the high lead content.
The site was as much spiritual as it was for bathing, with several religious buildings, including the only tholos (round temple) found in Britain, as well as the temple Sulis Minerva.
A pedestal was found in the temple courtyard, from Memor who was a Haruspex and who very modestly dedicated a statue of himself. A Haruspex was a senior priest who interpreted the will of the gods by examining entrails from sacrificed animals. He is the only recorded Haruspex in Britain, and although the town was small, compared to places such as Londinium and Verulamiam, for it to warrant this sort of religious high priest shows just how spiritually significant Aqua Sulis was to the Romans.
The remains of the pediment (above) which was at the front of the Temple Sulis Minerva was supported by four huge fluted columns. The relevance of the central face is still being interpreted today, and is either a gorgon or a water god. You can sit on amphitheatre style seating and listen to a detailed interpretation on the audio guide as a projector slowly fills in the gaps of the stone fragments and shows you how it would have looked at the time.
The site was used continuously until about the 6th century AD when the roof of the spring collapsed inwards, the rest of the site fell into disrepair and probably silted up. The open air ‘Kings Bath’ was built in the 12th century using some of the foundations built around the spring, and was in use until the middle of the last century. Bath underwent a revival in the 18th century with the building of a huge array of Palldian buildings, one of which was the Pump Room, designed for visitors to ‘take the waters’ and to give them easy access to swimming in the spring.
It was the Victorians who realised the significance of what had been there and who developed the buildings, adding on the facade that we see today. A competition was held for the best design and originally it was going to have the Great Bath covered, much as the Romans had had it, but finances were stretched and it remained open.
Today the Baths are no longer suitable for swimming in, but nearby a borehole was drilled to the spring, and the Thermae Bath Spa is open to all for swimming and treatments.
THE ROMAN BATHS BY NIGHT
After the museum it is finally time to see the Great Bath, the highlight of the visit, and where people seem to naturally gravitate towards. The museum itself shows you a variety of amazing artefacts, but they are somewhat removed from their context, divorced from their reality and their role in the past.
Here at last, as you walk outside, you feel as if you can truly get a feeling for the Roman Baths experience. You step out onto smooth, well worn paving, a variety of sizes, shapes and heights, glossy from centuries of use.
The sides of the Great Bath are all undercover, columns holding up the terrace above you and arches or doorways all around the walls. Large stone pediments stick out into the bath, which once supported the roof, but which now just create sections along the water’s edge.
The water though is the first thing you notice, an incredible colour, an opaque pea green that stands out against the creamy stone. In winter you can see the steam rising off it, which is an impressive sight, but in the late summer evenings, there is no mist, just a luminescent smooth surface reflecting the lights and flames of the torches.
Chatting to Roman characters, listening to the audioguide or just wandering around is a much more relaxed experience with a glass of bubbles in hand from the small champagne bar next to the Great Bath.
On these evening openings, there is a small bar in one of the arches, with a waist-coated waiter selling champagne, prosecco or sparkling elderflower. He polishes glasses with his white linen cloth as people buy a glass of bubbles and wander off to rest on one of the benches or sit on the smooth edges of the bath and gaze into the murky depths.
A gentle stroll around the outside of the bath reveals surprises, including doorways to both the West and East baths.
These contain other pools that would have been of varying temperatures, changing rooms, treatment rooms, the hypocaust system, passageways, the cold circular plunge pool and saunas.
Many have projections and CGI reconstructions, showing how people would have used the rooms, so you stand there in the low light watching people in togas bathe, get massages or just chat to their friends.
The cold plunge pool is kept shrouded in darkness, the lights dimming and the coins at the base of the pool sparkling and glinting in the frail light as you shiver from the cold, before you walk on to one of the treatment rooms full of the hypocaust system and feel the heat emanating up to you.
Back at the Great Bath, we sat for a while on a well worn stone slab under one of the arches, polished from centuries of use.
Watching the sun go down and the lights of the town come on around us, people quietly milled around, a few Roman costumed characters walked around chatting quietly to visitors, there was the popping of prosecco corks and the gentle clink of glasses.
Free guided tours are available every hour on the hour until 9pm, leaving from the corner of the bath where you enter, underneath the sign. These last about 40 minutes and are really worth doing as they are so informative.
The evening tours have fewer people than during the day, so it’s a good opportunity to ask questions. The guides really know their subject, ours was great at getting us to visualise how the springs would have looked before the Romans arrived, pointing out little details that weren’t in the audio guides and helping us to recognise the sheer magnificence of the place.
As he explained, the spring water was all once rainwater which fell thousands of years ago on the nearby Mendip Hills, ending up in a huge underground lake that is only reaching the surface thanks to a particular fault line underneath Bath.
The source of the spring bubbles gently below the windows of the Pump Room. Here you can see the old iron round handles where 18th century bathers would hold on to the sides, having descended directly from the Pump Rooms.
Near the end of the tour, you pass the source of the spring, the pool where it rises and where you can see bubbles popping up on the green water. This is flanked on all sides by walls so can only be viewed through a window. Above you are the lights emanating from the Pump Room through the windows above, where you can catch glimpses of people enjoying their fine dining in that elegant 18th century, high ceilinged room as they listen to chamber music.
Once darkness has fallen, the baths look truly amazing
After the tour we doubled back and returned to the Great Bath to just sit, drink a glass of something sparkling and assimilate all of the knowledge we had acquired. Darkness had fallen by then, the torches flickered in the wind and reflected back in the water. The rain had started but we were safely protected under the edges, a soporific lull descending on us as we listened to the soft sound of the drops on the water, watching the ripples move across the surface as the wind picked up.
The final thing to do before leaving is to try the waters. In recent years a water fountain has been installed near the exit, where you can pick up a paper cup and fill it with water from the fast flowing spout. It is amazing to think that the water coming out now is 4000 year old rainwater, falling from the skies at the same sort of time that Stonehenge was built. I enjoyed it and actually had two cups, finding it warm and tangy. My son, however, discreetly tipped his away, saying it tasted too metallic.
It’s a good final way to leave the baths, stepping out into the darkness with the watery tang still fresh in your mouth as you wend your way back to your hotel.
Have a look at the outside of the Pump Room, Baths and Abbey when you leave, as they look very beautiful lit up at night
You leave with a real sense that you got to fully appreciate the baths, that you hung out there for a while, became familiar with some of its smooth slabs, that you found a favourite place to sit, the best place for a great view, the comfiest place to people watch.