Bath Thermae Spa in England: Better Health through Water

When the traveling gets tough, the tough take a bath. After a long day of sightseeing or hiking through the countryside, one of the best things to do is soak your achy feet in the hotel hot tub or spa.

The Rooftop Pool at Thermae Bath Spa overlooks a glorious view of the city of Bath, including Bath Cathedral. © Bath Tourism Plus/Colin Hawkins

It turns out this watery antidote for stress has a long tradition: The ancient Romans had a saying for it: “sanitas per aquam,” which translates as “health through water.” And not coincidentally, the word “spa” is an acronym taken from that Latin phrase.

Geothermally warmed mineral springs were the first spas—used for healing. These waters naturally bubble up from the ground, bringing minerals from the earth’s core—minerals that can help improve certain skin conditions, arthritis and other musculoskeletal ailments.

In Bath, England, warm mineral waters have welcomed visitors for millennia. The Celts worshipped the water goddess Sulis there, and the ancient Romans (who ruled Britannia from the 1st through 5th centuries A.D.) built stone-enclosed pools and steam rooms for their health and restoration.

During the 1700s and 1800s, the British aristocracy flocked to the town of Bath for social parties and to “take the waters,” encouraged by the tale of how Queen Mary’s fertility troubles ended after she bathed in the waters and ultimately gave birth to a son.

Modern Spa, Ancient History

Today, Thermae Bath Spa is located in a chic modern building not far from the ruins of the ancient Roman baths. Although no one’s claiming anymore that the water cures infertility or any other major health problem, this is still the perfect place to shed your street clothes and spend a half- or full-day in a robe and swimsuit soaking like a Roman.

The indoor Minerva Pool has jets and moving water currents. © Thermae Bath Spa/David Saunders

My husband and I visited Thermae Bath Spa on a chilly, drizzly English afternoon, when a hot soak was most inviting. We started with a dip in the Minerva Bath, a large, indoor thermal pool equipped with massage jets, a whirlpool, and a “lazy river” with a current strong enough that it carried us around the pool. We hung onto flotation “noodles” and cruised the perimeter without moving a muscle. Between the water’s temperature (92°F) and the mineral-rich water (the slight sulfur smell is the giveaway), we felt like limp noodles.

After a long drink of water (it’s important to rehydrate while you soak), we checked out the über-cool co-ed steam rooms where we sweated in glass-enclosed circular steam areas. Each had a different aromatherapy scent: lavender, eucalyptus, rose and frankincense. A central waterfall shower was the spot where everyone gathered to cool off before trying a new scent.

At the center of the Thermae Bath Spa Steam Room is a ceiling shower for cooling off after a hot steam. © Thermae Bath Spa/David Saunders

A note about facilities: pools, steam rooms, and the locker rooms are all co-ed. This is Europe, after all! It was a little odd for us Americans who are used to gender segregation in public restrooms, gyms and pools, but we went with the flow. The locker rooms do have private cubicles where you can dress. Bathing suits (what the Brits call “swimming costumes”) are required.

Although Thermae Bath Spa offers a number of water-centric therapies—including watsu (massage done while you float in a warm pool), Vichy showers, body wraps and more—we opted for pool soaking, which we could enjoy as a couple. If you’re visiting Bath for several days, I’d highly recommend taking a separate day for a massage or special treatment.

For the grand finale, my husband and I deepened our relaxation in the steamy Rooftop Pool. The water was perfect, and the views of Bath’s skyline were spectacular. A high-pressure cascade gave us a deep-shoulder massage and sent a wave of tingles over my scalp. The added bonus: A huge rainbow appeared in the sky, arching over Bath’s cathedral. The entire pool population ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the sight. Unforgettable.

Feasting in the Natural Foods Restaurant

The spa’s Springs Café serves wonderful local cuisine. Photo courtesy Thermae Bath Spa

Afterwards, we realized we were hungry, but weren’t quite ready to leave. No problem, the spa’s Springs Café Restaurant serves everything from light snacks, appetizers, paninis, and hot gourmet meals. The atmosphere is casually elegant, and almost everyone comes in their robe. So, in our white, toga-like wraps, we dined quite well on slow-cooked Wiltshire beef and wild mushroom and Bath Blue cheese risotto with glasses of wine. The menu emphasizes nutritionally balanced foods made from locally produced fare.

Soaking, steaming, feasting—what more could we ask for? My husband and I came away from Bath Thermae Spa feeling relaxed, radiant, well-fed, and squeaky clean. The ancient Romans definitely had the right idea—and the city of Bath has created a first-class modern version of the historic baths. Add it to your itinerary—it’s a highlight of the city.

Clean Water Policy

The thermal water at Thermae Bath Spa bubbles naturally to the earth’s surface, and is estimated to be 10,000 years old. It contains more than 42 different minerals, the most concentrated being sulphate, calcium, and chloride, which are reported to be good for sore joints and some skin conditions.

The spa filters the water to remove iron and bacteria. A tiny bit of chlorine is added for sanitary reasons.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted May 2013

For more information on visiting Bath, England, see Visit Bath.

Read more about my travels in England:

The Georgian exterior of Thermae Bath Spa shows the honey-colored Bath stone that appears in buildings throughout the historic city. © Bath Tourism Plus/Colin Hawkins

Touring England’s Ancient Roman Baths by Romantic Torchlight

A statue of a Roman emperor peers down into the torch-lit main pool at Bath’s ancient Roman ruins. Photo courtesy Roman Baths

I’ve been to a lot of museums in my time—most fascinating, some grotesque, some silly—but Bath’s ancient Roman museum wins points for being romantic. During July and August, the Roman Baths stay open late and are lit by torches, which gives it that authentic 10 A.D. feel. With steam coming off the pool and a view of the nearby spires and pinnacles of Bath Abbey, it’s a sweetheart’s dream.

My husband and I visited the ancient baths right after experiencing another romantic venue in the city of Bath: the Spa Thermae, the modern equivalent of what the Romans built more than 2,000 years ago. The two of us were still glowing from spending a few hours submerged in the warm pools of water that have bubbled up from the ground for longer than human memory. When we entered the magical, after-dark atmosphere of the museum, we were greeted by statues of emperors flickering in the firelight. Below was the main pool, where the Romans soaked for health and relaxation.

Bath Abbey is beautifully lit at night, and it looks spectacular from the Roman baths. Photo© Ken Aikin

England’s Roman occupiers called this place Aquae Sulis, Latin for “The Waters of Sulis.” (Sulis was the Celtic goddess who reigned over the thermal spring, considered sacred.) The Romans associated Minerva, their goddess of wisdom and the arts, with Sulis the Celtic goddess. They built a temple, along with elaborate baths and steam rooms, dedicated to Sulis Minerva at the site of this sacred spring.

On our evening excursion, Ken and I felt like we were walking with the spirits of long-ago visitors who traveled from across the Roman Empire to take a dip in the healing, 114-degree water—just as we did. As we wandered through the museum, a few costumed interpreters demonstrated what life in this Roman outpost was like millennia ago.

Gilt head of the goddess Sulis Minerva. Photo: The Roman Baths in Bath

The artifacts were beautiful: from coins that people threw in as offerings to the goddess to samples of inscribed curses that people left. The gilt-bronze head of Sulis Minerva is quite stunning. Her statue would have stood within her temple beside the Sacred Spring. I also loved the “Gorgon,” a man’s face, circled by flowing hair carved from Bath stone.

Despite all these treasures, the best part (for me) of visiting the Roman baths was sitting on the stones beside the central bath.

Surrounded by pillars and statues illuminated by flickers of torchlight, I dipped my hands into the warm water and watched the bubbles surface from deep within the earth. I could have been a woman enjoying the baths thousands of years ago. The evening was quiet, with only a few visitors in the last hour. Never has a history museum been so evocative.

A plunge pool at the Roman Baths.  Photo: The Roman Baths in Bath

The Rise of a Green Empire

For an ancient ruin, Bath’s Roman Baths are quite forward thinking. To be more sustainable and to reduce its carbon footprint, the museum:

  • Uses energy from the hot spring to heat buildings.
  • Relies on energy-efficient lighting, including floodlights that reduce energy consumption by 60 percent and LED lights on the Terrace and in the Reception Hall.
  • Serves ethically sourced tea and coffee in the Pump Room.
  • Cooks with local ingredients as much as possible.
  • Uses recyclable paper bags and 100 percent biodegradable carrier bags in the shops.
  • Is committed to recycling.

Mood lighting on Bath’s Roman Baths at night.        Photo© Ken Aikin

It’s nice to know that conservation of the past goes hand in hand with conservation of natural resources—so that we all have a future to look forward to.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information on visiting the historic city of Bath, England—a UNESCO World Heritage site—refer to the Visit Bath website.

To read about what it’s like to soak in the natural mineral pools at Bath Spa Thermae, read my blog post about this modern spa.

 

Read more about my travels in England: