New Discoveries in Bath Spa – a Day Trip from London:
Strange though it may see to those visiting England from abroad, I’ve been to Bath Spa on several occasions and never actually been into the Roman Baths. I actually used to go shopping in Bath when I lived in Wiltshire – it’s one of those pretty English Cities that seems to offer all the best shops you can find in London, without the crowds. So, this piece is a new discovery for me – but as I found out, the Roman Baths themselves have some major new discoveries.
I guess sometimes you do miss seeing things that are right on your own doorstep.
I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath, when I am at home again — I do like it so very much. If I could but have Papa and Mamma, and the rest of them here, I suppose I should be too happy! James’s coming (my eldest brother) is quite delightful — and especially as it turns out that the very family we are just got so intimate with are his intimate friends already. Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?
Jane Austen Northanger Abbey
The first thing I was intrigued to learn was that the Roman Baths as we know them were not visible to the public in Jane Austen’s time as the site had been built over by a row of houses. Society, in those days, flocked to Bath for a hedonistic lifestyle and to ‘take the waters’ in the Pump Room. You can still do so, though I have to admit, one sip of the sulphurous liquid was quite enough for me and I quickly moved on.
It wasn’t until Victorian times, in 1880 when the cellars of some of the houses started to flood that the site of the Roman Baths was discovered and excavated. And, much of what you see when you wander around today was actually built in the Victorian Period, an attempt to reconstruct the site as it would have been when the Romans expanded the shrine which had originally been built by the Celts and dedicated to Sulis. The baths in Roman times would have included suites of ‘spa facilities’ worthy of any five-star resort – caldarium (hot bath) tepidarium (lukewarm bath) and frigidarium for both sexes, along with the Great Bath, lined with lead to create a waterproof warm indoor swimming pool and various other spa facilities including a special heated room known as a laconicum. I love the virtual reality films projecting over the various rooms to show how the Romans would have used the site.
This time, I had a particular reason for visiting Bath Spa – to explore the ‘Archway Project’ which involves the excavation of a new part of the Roman baths – an area previously unexplored which is thought to link the baths themselves to what was one of the largest Roman settlements in the UK.
One of the challenges faced by the current excavations is that the City of Bath Spa has a UNESCO listing not just for the Roman Baths but also for the fine Georgian architecture. And that architecture, by and large, sits over the infrastructure of the Roman settlement meaning that excavation work is difficult to impossible. In some cases, as with Bath Abbey, large parts of the construction are actually recycled materials from the Roman baths and the rest of the city.
It’s a complex and sensitive challenge.
In fact, the current Archway project at the Roman Baths is only happening because of work on the road above. And, it has to all be done during specific times when the roadworks will not cause danger to the archaeologists working in the tunnels below.
The project will open in 2019 and include a new Learning Centre for the Roman Baths, a hands-on investigation zone, where young people can learn more about archaeology, a free-to-visit World Heritage Visitor Centre and new areas of the Baths themselves.
For now, there’s a team of passional volunteers. I met up with R J Whitaker who told me that he’d been an archaeologist for 70 years (from the age of 14) and described some of the amazing work being done.
He pointed out areas of original Pompeii Red Roman plasterwork that had been painstakingly excavated and showed us how various Roman constructions had been reworked by later inhabitants, so that part of a door arch became a drain. We learnt that a new, large cold bath (4 m x 3 m) had been discovered. Mr Whitaker explained that they knew it was a cold bath as there was no red staining on the roman culvert.
We also learnt about some of the finds from the current excavation, including a pretty peacock design nail file, four coins and the largest piece of mosaic in the Baths to date, which was found just a few weeks previously by by local volunteer Fiona Medland, a member of the team of volunteers from the Bath & Camerton Archaeological Society (BACAS) that are helping archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology to carry out the dig. Just 2 inches by 22 inches, it’s part of the threshold of a Roman room.
Once I’d taken a look at the Archway Project in action I went off for a short walk through Bath and lunch at Clayton’s Kitchen. I was pleasantly surprised by the delicious food there – a lovely light crab salad to start followed by a delicious dish of venison. It’s certainly somewhere I’ll go back to if I am visiting Bath Spa again.
Back at the Roman Baths to take a look around the museum, I was stunned by the beauty of some of the artefacts on show.
Obviously, the gilt bronze head of the goddess Sulis Minerva which is perhaps the most famous object from the Roman Baths. It was discovered in 1727. As gilt bronze sculptures are rare finds from Roman Britain, it was a very early indication that the Roman settlement at Bath Spa was not a typical one. The head is probably from the cult statue of the goddess which stood in her Temple beside the Sacred Spring.
But, smaller objects like this beautiful gold broch, thought to be Irish.
And these ‘curse tablets’ – the personal curses of around 130 individuals inscribed on small sheets of lead or pewter, rolled up and thrown into the Spring at some point between the 2nd and 4th century AD. The spirit of the goddess Sulis Minerva was believed to rest in the spring and those who had suffered an injustice were appealing to her for vengeance.
After I’d had my fill of Ancient Rome, I went back to the Pump Room. Afternoon tea in full swing, if the costumes had been different I might have been stepping back in time to the days of Jane Austen. A piano trio on the stage surrounded by spring flowers and tables of diners enjoying a classic afternoon tea. Despite a reasonable walk back to the Roman Baths from Clayton’s Kitchen – and skipping dessert there deliberately – I really wasn’t hungry enough for a full afternoon tea.
The menu at the Pump Rooms though has a good range of options and I indulged in the Searcy’s Champagne Cream tea, which includes scones, a Scottish smoked salmon and cucumber pikelet with shallot creme fraiche, tea and a glass of fizz instead. It is definitely a good option if your appetite isn’t quite up to a full afternoon tea.
I’d forgotten how much I like Bath. It’s a short train journey from London and an excellent day trip to take. And where else can you move through time quite so seamlessly?
Next time I want to visit the new(ish) Thermae Bath Spa with it’s naturally heated rooftop pool and spend a bit more time exploring Bath Abbey. And, of course, to see how the Archway project is progressing – a project which will help make the unique Roman heritage at Bath Spa even more accessible.
The Pump Room serves food all day from 9 am to 4 pm including Morning Coffee and Breakfast, Lunch and Afternoon Tea
Thinking of visiting Bath Spa and the Roman Baths yourself? Why not pin this post for later. And if you have a little more time to spend, then here’s a great guide for a weekend in Bath.
Disclosure I was invited to visit the Roman Baths at Bath Spa and for afternoon tea at The Pump Room. All content is editorially given.