The City of Bath: The English Spa City

The ancient Roman city of Aquae Sulis has been an important spa center for centuries, thanks to its thermal springs. Alongside the Roman baths, excavated over the last 100 years, the city preserves an exceptional collection of neoclassical buildings dating from its heyday in the eighteenth century, in which the influence of the Italian Renaissance, in particular the great architect Andrea Palladio, is evident.

River Avon In The City of Bath

A British tradition attributed the foundation of Bath to Bladud, father of King Lear, who was cured of his leprosy by the waters of the place around 860 B.C. Without discarding the legend, there is no reliable proof of the existence of the city before the first century A.D. It is supposed that it was the Romans, following the conquest of Britain in 43 A.D., who discovered that there was a source of thermal waters by the river Avon. Their fondness for baths and their religious eclecticism led them to build a thermal complex and a temple dedicated to the Celtic goddess Sulis, identified by the Romans with Minerva, and who may have been worshipped in the place since ancient times. Around both grew Aquae Sulis, dedicated to the exploitation of the baths.

The baths became increasingly popular among the wealthy classes of the island so that the facilities were expanded several times between its foundation and the fourth century.

Excavations have revealed four Roman and one medieval bath groups, over an area of more than 4000 m², all fed by a single spring that provides a daily flow of 1,200,000 liters of water, at a constant temperature of 46 °C.

The Great Bath

The King's Bath

Like all Roman baths, those of Aquae Sulis had steam rooms -tapidaria-, equipped with a hot air heating system under the floor to provide a sauna atmosphere, and hot and cold water pools. There were also massage facilities and additional pools for curative treatments. A tepidarium in good condition, to the point that it even preserves the lead sheets that lined the floor to better diffuse the heat, is the so-called Great Bath, the central core of the group of the Eastern Baths, the largest of the complex. The intricate network of subway pipes can also be seen in its entirety under the tapidaria of the Western Baths, which once had a very secondary importance, but today are extremely interesting thanks to their excellent state of preservation. The so-called Lucas Bath, consisting of a swimming pool and a smaller one for therapeutic uses, and another group of unnamed baths, consisting of two floors, complete the complex. The lower floor was abandoned in the 2nd century, probably because of the frequent floods of the Avon, which systematically flooded the facilities with mud. Perhaps it was then that the upper rooms were built, which still retain part of the mosaics with which they were paved. 

Times of Transition. 

Abandoned after the fall of the Roman Empire, the baths soon disappeared almost completely under the silt. In contrast, the city of Aquae Sulis had better fortune, even after losing its main source of income. Conquered by the Saxons in 577, it became during the Middle Ages an important center of the wool industry. In the 12th century, it became again a spa town. We know that since 1174 there was a hospital specialized in the treatment of rheumatism, and around that time the King's Bath was built around the hot spring, the only one in the complex that does not date from Roman times, although part of its facilities occupy the site of the great hall that originally gave access to the Roman baths. However, its present construction dates almost entirely from the 19th century. The importance of the medieval Bath was accentuated by the temporary transfer of the episcopal see of Wells to this city between 1091 and 1206. The new seat of the bishopric of Bath and Wells needed a cathedral, and this was the understanding of Bishop Robert de Lewes, who undertook its construction in the mid-12th century. Nothing remains of this Romanesque work, demolished in 1495 to be rebuilt as an Abbey in the Perpendicular style, the English equivalent of the continental flamboyant Gothic. The initiative was again taken by a bishop of Bath and Wells, this time Oliver King, who, according to tradition, had a dream in which angels ascended and descended a ladder stretched up to heaven, and a voice urged a king to rebuild the church.

A Map of Medieval Bath

The result was the beautiful Bath Abbey, which came to be known as "the lantern of the West" because of the huge stained glass windows that illuminated the nave and chancel, but which nevertheless remained unfinished at the time of the Reformation, and had to be completed with great difficulty shortly before its consecration in 1609.

Bath Abbey

The Empire of Beau Nash. 

As had been the case under Roman rule, economic prosperity and the subsequent rise in the standard of living in the 18th century led the wealthy classes to indulge in new luxuries, and spas were one of them. Already in times of the last Stuarts, it was fashionable to go to Bath to take baths, but from the Georgian period it became a social phenomenon that would continue throughout the following century and that would be immortalized in the pages of Jane Austen, Dickens, Fielding or Thackeray. To stroll through Bath, to drink its waters, to be seen in its salons meant for 200 years "to be somebody" in the good British society, but the origin of this unsuspected boom is not so much to be sought in the curative virtues of Aquae Sulis as in the intelligent activity of a series of characters who, each in their own way, gave shape to this microcosm, converting in a short time the rustic woolen town into one of the most beautiful and elegant cities in Europe, at the service of a new class of aristocrats and enlightened bourgeoisie.

Richard Beau Nash - Bath's Master of Ceremonies

The first of these characters was Richard Beau Nash, the prototype of the dandy and holder of a profession that was still shocking from our point of view. In 1704, at the age of 30, he was appointed master of ceremonies of the city, a high official position that implied the supervision of all the social life of the seaside resort. He organized activities, established social norms, created fashions. For nearly half a century he reigned over the town like a despot, to whose power those who wished to be admitted to the elite willingly submitted, and he successfully strove to refine the customs of his contemporaries. His influence extended far beyond the city limits, and his skill and personal prestige were instrumental, in these early days, in laying the foundations of Bath's enduring fame.

Palladian Architecture.

Bath was still, at that time, a city of medieval appearance, whose narrow streets soon proved insufficient for the growing carriage traffic, so that the authorities had to consider its reconstruction, according to its new importance. Three new characters then appeared on the scene, the architects of this architectural renovation that would last throughout the second half of the 18th century. Ralph Allen, a millionaire with the vocation of a patron of the arts, financed most of the major works of the new Bath, providing the stone from his Coombe Down quarries; the technical part was carried out by two architects, John Wood, father and son. Firm admirers of Palladio, their work is part of the current of recovery of Palladian aesthetics that spread throughout Europe during the eighteenth century, and which produced its best results in England. From 1743, when John Wood the Elder designed for Allen the villa of Prior Park, in the suburbs, a close collaboration began between the patron and the two architects that would completely change the appearance of the city, providing it with luxurious residential complexes as well as public buildings. Among the former are those surrounding Queen Square and Royal Circus, the work of John Wood the Elder, and above all the magnificent Royal Crescent, built by John Wood junior between 1767 and 1776, which is an original application of the style of Palladian villas to an urban environment.

Royal Crescent in Bath

Pulteney Bridge over the river Avon, Bath

But the intense social activity of Bath required, above all, adequate public spaces. Thus arose the Assembly Rooms, a set of ballrooms and reception rooms designed by John Wood the Younger in 1771, and at a somewhat later date the Pump Room, which dates from the last decade of the century and includes play and reading rooms, a concert hall and a restaurant with magnificent views over the Roman baths. The Italian influence, which hovers over the entire city, is especially evident in the covered Pulteney Bridge, inspired by Florence's Ponte Vecchio. It was built between 1769 and 1774 by Robert Adam, one of the most notable representatives of English Palladianism, whose name could not be missing in this great tribute to the architect of Vicenza written in stone in the streets of the very neoclassical city of Bath. 

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