Manor Cottages blog

The History of Bath’s Spa

Trips to Bath and the Cotswolds should, if possible, include a visit to the Bath Spa, one or the region’s most attractive and renowned attractions. There’s something rather wonderful and thought provoking about spending time in the hot mineral-rich waters of Bath’s Spa. Whether it’s the history of the place, as you consider that when you dip a toe into the warm, invigorating waters, so did Roman soldiers some 2,000 years ago, or simply marvelling at the healing properties of the natural springs.

Legend

Bath Spa is steeped in ancient folklore, and was supposedly founded, according to legend, after Prince Bladud’s leprosy was cured, when he bathed in the warm, comforting waters in Bath. Bladud had been sent to Athens to study but instead contracted leprosy and was banished from court. He left disguised as a nomad with a herd of pigs, which had also contracted leprosy, and wandered into the region of Bath. It was here that his pigs wallowed in warm, muddy and bubbling waters, which seemed to heal the dreadful effects of leprosy. Bladud himself bathed in the waters and was cured of his affliction. To express his appreciation, the city of Bath, which is situated on three hot springs, was given official status in 863 BC, with Bladud dedicating the curative powers of the springs to the Celtic Goddess Sul.

Bladud was an important character in English history, eventually reigning as the ninth King of the Britain and, according to legend, the alleged father of King Lear. In 43 AD the Romans came to Bath, and having discovered the hot springs, decided to develop the town as a place of rejuvenation and rest, making Bath quite separate from other Roman towns, which served as garrisons for their soldiers.

The Romans, with their superior knowledge of architecture, built a reservoir designed to hold the hot waters, so that people could bathe easily. They continued, with the worship of Sul, erecting a magnificent temple to the goddess, and naming the baths 'Aquae Sulis', in dedication to her. The baths were now attracting travellers from all over England, and this popularity led to an appointment of the first Bishop of Bath, John of Villula in 1088.

Rebuild and Improvements

It is thought that in 1138, the baths were rebuilt over the Temple Precinct, and had now gained such notoriety that sick people were making the journey, for their chance to cure their ailments in the soothing waters. The healing power of the waters at Bath caught the attention of Bishop Reginald, who, in 1174, founded St John’s Hospice. The spa at Bath provided an integral part of patients’ treatments at the hospice, where people could now stay in the vicinity and partake of the healing waters.

Over the next few years, the spa underwent numerous improvements, where rebuilding included a more efficient draining system, and a segregated bath was constructed for Lepers. Despite this new work, people still complained that there was nowhere to change their clothes, and that the baths remained uncovered, making them susceptible to the elements. However, these niggles were not enough to put travellers off visiting and indeed, the baths even boasted visits from Royalty, who came from all over Europe.

It was around the 16th century that Bath Spa really achieved fame and recognition, especially when news caught on that James II's wife gave birth to their son, the Prince of Wales, after bathing the spa waters. With this royal seal of approval, other important guests, including Queen Anne came to the baths, putting the spa waters firmly on the tourists’ map of Europe. As news of the healing waters spread across the country, the town of Bath saw an influx of doctors setting up shop in the area, many of whom offered accommodation as well as consultations for their patients.

From the 18th century onwards, Bath Spa underwent a period of rebuilding which led to the architecture that has now become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These new building works included the Great Pump Room, where features of the original Roman Temple were discovered during excavations. In 1739, the Royal Mineral Water Hospital opened its doors to the sick and poor beggars, establishing the waters at Bath with official healing status.

Today

Bath Spa was now a tourist hotspot, with worldwide recognition of the healing qualities of the waters. Wealthy and fashionable characters from high society paraded around the town in sedan chairs, after bathing in the Grand Pump Room. Novelist Jane Austen, who lived in the town from 1801 to 1805, was known to give a scathing commentary on these highflying hobnobbers.

As trade around the globe became more widespread in the 19th century, the mineral waters at Bath were bottled and sold as Sulis Water, with curing properties for all kinds of ailments. The healing waters of Bath Spa were considered to be so exceptional, that after WWI, injured soldiers were sent for rest and rehabilitation, to recover properly after battle.

In 1923, the newly constructed public swimming pool took centre stage in the town and for the first time, the spa’s popularity decreased, with the main baths becoming known as the ‘Tuppenny Hot’ (still a term the locals use today). In 1948 the National Health Service was founded and water from the spas at Bath became available on prescription. However, in 1978 the baths were shut down due to a health scare about the quality of the waters, and this led to a closure lasting thirty years.

In 1997, the Millennium Commission funded a project to reopen and rebuild the historic spas at Bath, and in 2006 the newly established Thermae Bath Spa provides visitors with access to the naturally, healing waters of the city. Today, the Bath Spa remains the most popular tourist attraction in the city and we would most certainly recommend you take time to visit this attraction when enjoying your stay in Bath.

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