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Bath: A Step Back into Britain's History

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

"Fine Balls, and fine Concerts, fine Buildings and Springs, fine Walks, and fine Views, and a thousand fine Things ...."
-- Christopher Anstey, The New Bath Guide, 1767.

The benches on the paved square were full of visitors. Red-sweatered Americans, anorak-jacketed Germans, head scarved Central Europeans and chattering English school children, some of whose parents had come from China, Pakistan and Italy all had one thing in common. They had come to visit Bath, England's second biggest tourist destination. Some had already emerged from the two beige limestone buildings that dominated the square. Others were about to go in.

One of the buildings, ornately decorated with faux balconies, bore the inscription 'Roman Baths' over its doorway. We too entered, to look down upon a vast milky green pool and the columned gallery around it that stood revealed below us. At our street level the spots over the columns below were surmounted by a series of faux Roman figures. But these, like the other buildings at our level had a history of their own, having been constructed in the 18th Century for the British Royal Family and aristocracy that came to 'take the waters' here.

The baths below us were built in another era -- that of two thousand years ago -- and the Roman Legions and their civilian administrator counterparts who built the baths and temples which were set out below us, had clearly spared no effort in 'getting things right'. The baths were quite elaborate, with steam rooms and cold water plunge pools.

In just over an hour from London, British Rail, rarely thought of as an H.G. Wellsian Time Machine, had taken us back two hundred and two thousand years respectively to Regency England and then to the Roman Spa that had provided rest and recreation for Caesar's Imperial Legions. But once in Bath, we found that there was even more to this charming town than its Regency architecture and the famous Roman hot springs.

We were fortunate to be staying at the famous Royal Crescent Hotel. Its location, history and ambiance makes it a tourist attraction in itself.

The street after which the hotel is named is considered by many as the most elegant in Britain. Thirty houses with similar facades that provide continuity, were built by John Wood the Younger in 1767 to 1774. The great grassed area in front of these houses was made into Royal Victoria Park in 1830 and is the largest open space in the city. Unlike the other parks, it is a vast open expanse of lawn, with trees only starting eight-tenths of the way across the park's visual circle, while this makes the park somewhat stark, it allows for a fabulous view of the Crescent 's buildings.

With its historic suites and outstanding cuisine, this hotel has received many impressive accolades. Egon Ronay rated it 'Britain's Hotel of the Year', with a top rating for its restaurant also. Harper's & Queen magazine included it in its listing of the three hundred best hotels in the world. Guide Michelin gave it top billing, the Automobile Association its 'four stars' and restaurant award and all with good reason.

The hotel occupies the two centrally located houses in the Royal Crescent, one of Bath's architectural landmarks. The Royal Crescent is the epitome of stylish, timeless Regency design -- a semi circle of 30 limestone buildings with identical facades that arcs out in a great 500 foot curve facing a vast grassy lawn. Its picture, recognized by almost every Englishman has been made famous by appearing in everything from glossy magazines to postcards.

Once settled in, we asked the concierge for the best way to see the town. "My suggestion is to take a walking tour with a local guide" was the answer. "If you like I'll phone one to show you around."

Half an hour later we were strolling through leafy residential streets past marvelous 18th Century buildings, Maureen Bannock, our new-found and knowledgeable guide pointing out the ones featuring commemorative nameplates that gave details of the famous people who had lived here.

We came to the very photogenic River Avon crossed by Pulteney Bridge, its shops running right along the bridge making it somewhat reminiscent of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Designed by Robert Adam and built in 1769, the bridge has a rare Victorian pillar-box at the east end. Like other tourists around us, we stopped to help fill the coffers of Messrs Fuji and Kodak by clicking away with our cameras.

From there we headed into the town center with its narrow pedestrian streets, little changed from Regency times. As we walked, Maureen proudly told us of Bath's fascinating history.

"The town is set in a natural bowl formed by seven hills and was first made famous 2000 years ago by the Romans who proceeded to build their own classic style of baths here "the biggest and best in this part of Europe" Maureen explained. "They never fortified the town, only using it as a recreational center and place of worship. Nearby, they discovered the limestone deposits which, after cutting, became the building blocks from which the town was subsequently constructed."

Today the ancient Roman ruins have been meticulously excavated, and are the town's main tourist attractions. The large rectangular pool is now again fed by the hot mineral springs that flow at the rate of over a million litters a day (more than 250,000 gallons) and at a temperature of 46oC (117oF). Not so long ago archeologists tunneling into the earth below the Pump Room, found the old hot spas, Roman steam rooms, and cold plunge pools. Adjacent to these, the original temples have also been found and the area is now the museum section of the complex.

I found this museum utterly fascinating. What particularly impressed me were the small tablets, inscribed with good and bad wishes that Romans threw into the spring, to be found 2,000 years later. What intrigued me about the wishes is that they clearly demonstrated that mankind hadn't changed much in the two millennia since they were written. Some were supplications for health, others for fertility, and I was told that one was from a Roman who hated a particular enemy and 'wished him further', while another was a curse which a Roman had aimed at his wife.

Other rooms contained the elaborate subfloor structures through which natural steam passed to heat the sauna. Yet others had a collection of tombstones, inscriptions, and a marvelous bronze head of Minerva, the Roman Goddess of Wisdom and Healing, to whom the baths and temple were dedicated.

One of the main reasons the Romans held on to Britain was that it was the chief source of tin and lead for the Roman Empire. The baths themselves were lined with lead and the lead pipes which the Romans built for drainage and water flow, are still to be seen to this day. Ironically, many historians, teaming up with medical researchers now theorize that it was this metal that led to Rome's downfall.

Towards the end of the Roman Empire, her Aristocracy was extensively using lead, not only for piping its water supply, but also eating off leaden plates, drinking from lead mugs and so on. The theory now concludes that the Aristocracy, which included all the Leaders, Senators, Generals and the like, were getting a regular overdose of lead from this usage. Excess lead in the system deposits in the brain and leads to madness, infertility in women and a drastically lowered sperm count in men. It was the deterioration of Rome's leadership, this theory argues, caused by massive lead poisoning of the Roman Empires ruling classes that led to the collapse of Rome's power. By contrast, the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople (now Istanbul) was not using lead and consequently survived and still grew for some centuries until conquered in battle by the newly emerging Moslem powers. But back to Bath !

When the Romans eventually departed in the 5th century, stability left with them. The Saxons who followed made Bath into a fortress. In 973, the first King of all England, Edgar, was re crowned in the Abbey that had been built here.

After the Norman invasion the noblemen controlling the area quarreled, deteriorating relationships bringing tensions to a point where Bath was virtually abandoned. The town did not regain its prominence until it became an important wool-town in the l5th Century.

While Maureen was bringing the town's history to life with her stories, we had reached the inner town and were very happy to see that there is no ultra modern 20th century architecture in Bath. The City Fathers have decreed that any building that can be preserved must be, and that all 'new' buildings, even those on the outskirts of town, must be built in keeping with Regency style. This, mercifully, avoids any hotchpotch mix of old and new architectural styles.

Our guide now brought her narrative to the Regency Period. "By the 1700's the town had been rediscovered, this time by English Kings and London's society," she explained.

"In that period, English Kings were married to foreign Queens and these badly missed their spas on the continent. Someone mentioned "Do you know there is hot water at Bath?" -- a fact which everybody had forgotten".

Soon the King and Queen of England made a point of visiting the town. They bathed in the water and then drank the horrible stuff full of malodorous chemicals to find that, like the spa waters of Europe, it made them feel marvelous. So they told everybody "Go to Bath. It is superb!"

Once the town became the 'watering hole' of the English Royal Family, it became the place where 'everybody who was anybody' wanted to go and to be seen. The aristocracy plunged in with abandon. And since this was now the playground of Britain's ruling classes, fine buildings were constructed to house them and their households when they holidayed there.

As was the fashion of the 18th century, all Bath's buildings had been razed, to be replaced by beautiful, classical Italianate architecture (hence the Avon Bridge/Ponte Vecchio similarity). The King set the fashion, and for a hundred years Bath was the summer home of British society and the second social center of England .

Bath was responsible for many 'firsts' . Its sewers were covered before London's because the King and so many other famous people were walking around the town. Such a fortune was involved that the expenditure required an act of Parliament to be passed. Paved streets and street lighting were also introduced in Bath before they became commonplace in London.

Later we inspected the Theater Royal which, dating from 1805, displays the Royal Family's Coat of Arms and is still presenting popular performances to this day. The boxes nearest to the stage faced the audience, and I asked why this was so. Maureen explained that the theater had been built that way because the Rich and Famous people of the Regency period came in at the last moment and lights were kept up until they were seated so that everyone could see them.


On to Part Two

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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