Fighting a cold on a late December morning at the Roman Baths in Bath, England, I sniffle as I stand on worn stones laid in the first century A.D. when the Romans constructed this massive bathing complex.
Before me is the aptly named Great Bath that was the centerpiece of one of the greatest religious spas of the ancient world. Once covered by a soaring 130-foot-high, barrel-vaulted roof, the pool is now exposed to the elements. Chilly air meets thermal water, tinged jewel green from algae, causing steam to rise and creating a mystical, ethereal, supernatural scene.
I wonder as I clutch my wad of Kleenex… Could the mineral-rich water, long considered sacred by the early Celts and the conquering Romans, have the power to relieve (dare I say cure?) my cold symptoms?
Luckily, a warning sign catches my eye before I dip my hand into the murky liquid. BEWARE, it silently screams in capital letters, for the water nowadays in the Great Bath is completely untreated and unsafe to drink or even touch.
Whew – close call. The cold pills I swallowed when my husband, Bill, and I boarded the train from London for the 90-minute ride southwest through the rolling hills of Somerset County must suffice.
Our trip to Bath, a city so beautiful and special that its entirety is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, feels like a pilgrimage. We’re following in the footsteps of untold thousands drawn here over the centuries because of natural hot springs lying deep underground. The small Roman town of Aquae Sulis – which became Bath – grew up in a bend in the River Avon. Even on this frosty winter day, a large crowd roams through the remains of the Roman Baths, testifying that it’s one of the most popular destinations in the United Kingdom.
I’m certainly not letting a stuffy head and runny nose detract from our exploration. That anyone has an opportunity to experience this historic attraction is especially fortuitous, given the Roman Baths wasn’t discovered, unearthed, and opened to the public until the late 19th century. The main excavations understandably have been major events in British archaeology.
Life in the Roman Baths
Although we entered at the modern street level, the Roman Baths lies 13 feet below, extending a surprising distance beneath adjacent streets.
A small-scaled replica conveys its former enormity. Like the spectacle of a Hollywood epic, I envision hundreds of toga-clad Roman worshippers gathered here to bathe, relax, socialize, and pray to the goddess Sulis Minerva, whom they believed possessed healing powers.
We walk around the open-air terrace that overlooks the Great Bath. Romans attempting to swan dive into the pool would have had a rough landing, for the depth is only five feet. Victorian-era statues representing Roman governors and emperors – the Ides-of-March-doomed Julius Caesar among them – stand as life(less) guards. The adjacent medieval Bath Abbey adds to the striking panorama.
Still surviving from the Roman Temple that housed the statue of Sulis Minerva is the great ornamental pediment, a fearsome, wild-eyed Gorgon face which glared down 50 feet to the courtyard.
Sulis Minerva’s gilt bronze head from the statue exists as well. Encased in glass, the head is lit from below, casting an eerie glow that reminds me of when my childhood friends and I held flashlights under our chins at night to creep out each other.
The Sacred Spring, with naturally hot water around 115°F, was and still is the heart of the Roman Baths.
Sulis Minerva’s spirit dwelt within, the Romans believed, and they tossed in coins, jewelry, and other valuables as offerings. In addition, they presented curses – messages inscribed on little rectangular sheets of lead and pewter. Theft of personal belongings while bathing was a common crime and a common complaint on curses. Many of the writers named possible suspects, seemingly with and without evidence, and pleaded for the goddess to ensure the return of their stolen items.
Our final stop is the fountain where we can taste the famous thermal water – fully treated for human consumption.
An analysis identified 43 minerals, a content five times greater than Perrier or Evian. Bill and I ceremoniously clink paper cups brimming with water, toast to good health, and down the warm, slightly salty water.
Call it what you will – wishful thinking, a placebo effect, or (my choice) Sulis Minerva’s divine intervention – but my cold symptoms seem lessened. Who knew that Dr. William Oliver predicted my turnaround as far back as 1707. He wrote this about the positive effect of Bath’s waters – “If they can’t be cured by drinking and bathing here, they will never be cured anywhere.”
Royally impressed in Bath
Feeling fortified, we walk across town to the Royal Crescent – one of Bath’s iconic landmarks, one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture anywhere, and forever protected as part of England’s National Heritage List.
The Royal Crescent of 30 terraced townhouses is sweeping, orderly, dominating. Erected between 1767 and 1775 from Bath’s signature honey-colored stone, the stately, curved building is home to private residences, the 5-star luxury The Royal Crescent Hotel, and a museum of Georgian life (unfortunately closed for the season). A vast perfection of front lawn stretches like a plush green carpet.
For years I’ve wanted to stand face to face with the Royal Crescent, and I’m overcome by its awesome reality. No photo, no video, no imagining could do it justice. Cue the tissues, not because I’m about to sneeze, but because I’m moved to tears by its scale, elegance, and grandeur.
And, as if the Royal Crescent needs any more visual enhancement, the glorious structure shimmers and shines with an unexpected, almost otherworldly radiance beneath cerulean skies and bold, noontime sunlight.
Wooziness from my cold pills aside, I could easily relate the sense of mysticism evoked at the Roman Baths to my heightened emotions at the Royal Crescent. Perhaps Sulis Minerva’s realm extends beyond the bathing complex to this very spot. Maybe her godly goodness and power transcend the ages. I make a mental note to return to the Scared Spring some day and cast her an offering of thanks.