Imagine your amazement as you enter the great pool of the baths, with steam rising from the natural spring water up to the immense roof 40 metres above you with alcoves alongside in which you can relax and chat with friends, before moving through to one of the hot or cold rooms for perhaps a pummelling massage, or perhaps to one of the plunge pools, not much different to a modern spa in many ways. Don’t drink the water though, as the pool is lined with massive sheets of lead. Alongside is the temple to Minerva, here at the heart of the Roman City of Aqua Sulis.
The last time I was in the Roman Baths, quite a few years ago now, it was for a drinks reception around the main pool – not too much alcohol of course or you might have fallen in – and the water is not very wholesome these days. There has been much change since that visit, not to the main historic features themselves, but to the exhibition areas, which tell the story of the Roman town of Aquae Sulis, using archaeological finds and audio-visual displays, of the Baths themselves, still supplied from the natural spring dedicated to the Celtic goddess Sulis, (Minerva to the Romans) and of the Temple which was also here.
While the original Great Bath only remains up to the level of the column bases around the pool, most of what is above that is relatively recent, in archaeological terms, and the Roman Baths themselves were an extension to the Temple which was built on the site in the first century AD. The main pool would originally have been covered over, whereas today it is open to the sky with Bath Abbey in the background, but this was lost when the bathing complex came abandoned and disused after the Romans retreated back to Rome in the 5th century AD.
While there were attempts to recreate something that would take advantage of the natural spring, their real renaissance was in the 18th century when the curative powers of the water became fashionably popular and the architects John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger created the core of the current complex including the fine Grand Pump Room in which the people of Bath could take the waters, as they still can today, with subsequent extensions in classical style in the 19th century, along with 19th century statues of Roman emperors and governors in Britain on top of the Great Bath.
The extensive exhibition brings life in Aqua Sulis 2000 years ago to life including fascinating curses which were dedicated in the Temple related to misfortunes, some due to health, but many due to pick-pocketing and theft while bathing. It seems that some things never change…..