An elegant city built for pleasure and relaxation, Bath has been a wellbeing destination since the Roman era. Today it is where traditional heritage meets contemporary culture, and is the only place in Britain where you can still bathe in natural thermal hot springs.
Hosting the popular Jane Austin Festival on an annual basis, Bath’s honey-coloured Georgian architecture and its Somerset countryside are straight out of a classic novel. Known for and named after its Roman-built baths, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is for those looking to dip a toe into the nostalgic sense and sensibility of its long-standing legacy.
The city became a spa with the Latin name Aquae Sulis (“the waters of Sulis”) c. 60 AD when the Romans built baths and a temple in the valley of the River Avon, although its hot springs were used even before then. In the 17th century, claims were made for the curative properties of water from the springs, and Bath became popular as a spa town in the Georgian era. Georgian architecture, crafted from Bath stone, includes the Royal Crescent, Circus, Pump Room, and the Assembly Rooms, where Beau Nash (Bath’s Master of Ceremonies and unofficial ‘king’ of the city) presided over the areas social life from 1705 until his death in 1761.
Goddess Of Healing, Hot Springs And Hexes
In the localised Celtic polytheism practised in Great Britain, Sulis was a deity worshiped at the thermal spring of Bath. She was worshiped by the Romano-British as Sulis Minerva, whose votive objects and inscribed lead tablets suggest that she was conceived of both as a nourishing, life-giving mother goddess and as an effective agent of curses invoked by her votaries. The exact meaning of the name Sulis has been a matter of debate, but an emerging consensus among linguists regards the name as cognate with the Old Irish súil (“eye, sight”). The medieval Welsh personal name Sulgen (Sulien; “born from Sulis”) and the Breton personal name Sul, borne by a local saint, are also related.
It is believed that Sulis was likely venerated as a healing divinity, whose sacred hot springs could cure physical or spiritual suffering and illness. According to scholar Miranda Green, the cult of Sulis at Bath was active until the mid-fourth century CE. Her name primarily appears on inscriptions discovered in an extensive temple area to her at Bath, with only a single instance outside of Britain at Alzey, Germany. At the Roman temple in Bath, several ancient additions to the altar area suggest that sacrifice may have been a major component of her worship. The open area surrounding the altar may have been used for processions and public offerings of meats and liquids.
Over twelve and a half thousand Roman coins and eighteen Celtic coins having been found in the reservoir. In addition, items have also been retrieved that were likely private offerings, such as jewellery, gemstones, plates, bowls, military items, wooden and leather objects. Pewter vessels found in the spring reservoir have led some scholars to conclude that physical contact with the water may have been important for transfer of healing properties, with these vessels being used to pour the water over visitors’ bodies. From the evidence of funerary inscriptions discovered on the site, it appears that many visitors to the sacred springs were soldiers. In order to afford the inscriptions, those who recorded their visit with altars or tombstones would likely have been of a higher social standing.
About 130 ‘curse tablets’, mostly addressed to Sulis, have been found in the sacred spring at the Roman baths in Bath. Typically, the text on the tablets offered to Sulis relate to theft; for example, of small amounts of money or clothing from the bath-house. It is evident, from the localised style of Latin (“British Latin”), that a high proportion of the tablets came from the native population. In formulaic, often legalistic, language, the tablets appeal to the goddess to punish the known or unknown perpetrators until reparations are made. Sulis is typically requested to impair the physical and mental well-being of the perpetrator, by the denial of sleep, causing normal bodily functions to cease, or even by death. These afflictions are to cease only when the property is returned to the owner or disposed of as the owner wishes, often by its being dedicated to the goddess. One message found on a tablet in the Temple at Bath (once decoded) reads: “Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds and eyes in the temple of the goddess.”
The tablets were often written in code, by means of letters or words being written backwards; word order may be reversed and lines may be written in alternating directions, from left to right and then right to left (boustrophedon). While most texts from Roman Britain are in Latin, two scripts found here, written on pewter sheets, are in an unknown language which may be Brythonic. They are the only examples of this writing that has ever been found. Sulis’ pre-Roman presence has been suggested by the discovery of eighteen Celtic Iron Age coins at the lowest levels of the site, as documented by Barry Cunliffe in 1988; And it is believed by some sources that devotion was also practiced the local Celtic Dobunni tribe. Through the Roman Minerva syncresis, later mythographers have inferred that Sulis was also a goddess of wisdom and decisions.
Sulis was not the only goddess exhibiting syncretism with Minerva. Some sources claim Senua’s name appears on votive plaques bearing Minerva’s image, while Brigantia also shares many traits associated with Minerva. The identification of multiple Celtic gods with the same Roman god is not unusual (both Mars and Mercury were paired with a multiplicity of Celtic names). On the other hand, Celtic goddesses tended to resist syncretism; Sulis Minerva is one of the few attested pairings of a Celtic goddess with her Roman counterpart. Dedications to “Minerva” are common in both Great Britain and continental Europe, most often without any Celtic epithet or interpretation (Belisama is one exception).
Based on her name’s etymology, as well as several other characteristics, such as the association with sight, civic law, and epithets relating to light, Sulis has been interpreted as a solar deity, at least in pre-Roman times. She has a number of modern-day worshipers among the Wiccan and pagan communities. As of 1998, some people still deposited offerings in the waters of the Roman baths, and the Roman Baths Museum encourages visitors to throw coins into the Circular Basin, which are collected and used to fund the Bath Archaeological Trust.
Grosvenor Villa’s Persuasion
Bath’s coat of arms includes a depiction of the city wall, and two silver strips representing the River Avon and the hot springs; the supporters, a lion and a bear, stand on a bed of acorns, a link to Bladud, the subject of the Legend of Bath. The knight’s helmet indicates a municipality and the crown is that of King Edgar (referencing his coronation at the Abbey). The Arms bear the motto “Aqvae Svlis”, the Roman name for Bath in Latin script; although not on the Arms, the motto “Floreat Bathon” is sometimes used (“may Bath flourish” in Latin).
One of Bath’s principal industries is tourism, mainly heritage and cultural: all significant stages of the history of England are represented within the city, from the Roman Baths and their significant Celtic presence, to Bath Abbey, the Royal Crescent, and the more recent Thermae Bath Spa.
Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801 and her family resided at four different addresses until 1806. She never liked the city, and allegedly wrote to Cassandra, “It will be two years tomorrow since we left Bath for Clifton, with what happy feelings of escape.” Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are set in the city and describe taking the waters, social life, and music recitals. Today you can visit the area’s enthusiastic Jane Austen Centre, and purchase a copy of The History of England by a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian from Quince Tree Press.
Fans of the author will appreciate a stay with Grosvenor Villa. Run by locals Richard and his partner, it makes for an intimate and eclectic treat full of character, and is a local gem worthy of worship. The building is a grade two listed Georgian Villa, created specifically to house the former high altar of Bath Abbey which now forms part of the entrance hall. The altar-piece was presented to the Abbey in 1725 and was removed in 1830 when the present gothic altar piece was installed. With just 6 rooms, a highlight of the B&B is the inclusive breakfast, which is an entertaining and communal affair where all guests share the same table. They also cater to dogs – but not children.
City Glitterati Literati
Backdrop to the Netflix series Bridgerton, and hosting a new museum dedicated to Mary Shelley, who wrote most of Frankenstein while a teenager in the area, the city’s literary side is a major draw for seekers wishing to soak in another time and place.
By making it in time for the last entry into the Roman Baths, now a museum in the city center, you can catch the peace between the daytime bustle and nightlife, even if there is no swimming allowed. Resurrected by the Victorians who discovered its ruins, the surrounding columns and walls provide a wheat-coloured backdrop to the gorgon green reflections, tinted by algae.
Walking from Bathwick to the city center will take you to Pulteney Bridge, which was completed in 1774 and is a rare example of a bridge with storefronts built along both sides. On the east side of the river, Bathwick Pharmacy is worth visiting for its elegant 1826 interior and display of old dispensary bottles and jars. Nearby, the Antique Map Shop sells maps of the British Isles, Europe and the Americas; most are over a century old, and many are annotated in copperplate handwriting and decorated with mythical creatures and the coats of arms of landowners. Over the bridge, Independent Spirit of Bath has spirits, wines, beers and mead from local producers – a favourite is Bath Botanical No 1. Gin, a classic London dry style customary to the area.
Inside No 1. Royal Crescent, a museum in a restored townhouse, period furnishings and a soundscape of imagined conversations between family members and staff convey a sense of life in the Georgian era. The characters discuss objects on display and concerns of the time: a fossilised mollusk prompts a discussion of creation and evolution; and talk of a slave rebellion in Jamaica and how it may affect the family’s income offers a window into how opulent Georgian life was supported by products of slavery in the colonies, as well as industrial labour by the working class.
Pop into the Green Bird Cafe for a coffee or a snack before taking an hour long stroll through scenic streets and parks. Make your way through Royal Victoria Park and its botanical gardens, where paths pass flower beds and a stream. Continue uphill along Cavendish Road, where you will see villa-style houses built in the 19th century, when a wealthy mercantile class began constructing permanent homes. Walcot Street, which formed part of the road network during Roman times, has resisted urban development and corporate incursion to remain a home for artistic and independent endeavours. Cheddar is the most famous cheese of Somerset, the county that encompasses Bath, and the sharpest renditions of cheddar are a product of the green pastures nurtured by West Country rains combined with cave maturation. The Fine Cheese Co., on Walcot Street, sells cheeses made by small European producers who use traditional methods, although British cheeses are the highlight.
Mary Shelley stayed in Bath for five months from 1816 to 1817, attending scientific lectures. By the time she left, most of Frankenstein had been written (many say the novel started the modern science fiction genre). Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein, explores Shelley’s life, as well as her influences and legacy. Gothic imagery guides you through her complicated romantic connections, which led to social ostracism, alongside the loss of three children and a husband by the time she was 24. Basement rooms add to the creepy experience by pushing you through strange smells and weird textures, and upstairs you’re invited to explore the vast quantity of memorabilia inspired by her work.
The multifloor Thermae Bath Spa, near the Roman Baths, offers bathers a variety of geothermal pools. In the basement Minerva pool, sit in a bubbling hot tub that you have to swim to reach, or just allow the natural currents to move you around the bath. The Wellness Suite offers a number of spa experiences, including heated loungers, scented steam rooms, an infrared sauna, ice chamber, and cosmic relaxation pod for traversing time and space. Finish your journey at the rooftop, which will leave you feeling on top of the world as you take in the views of these historic and healing sites.