My most recent travels saw me arriving in a beautiful little English town once known as Aquae Sulis. Doesn’t ring a bell? Today, it’s called Bath and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its rich past. If you’re into history, either of the Roman era or the Georgian period (or both!), this is a destination for you. It’s an easy trip from London, just 97 miles (1.5 hour by train) west of London. You’ll love it even more if you happen to also be a fan of Jane Austen, who lived here at several points in her life.
As you may have guessed, all these things fascinate me. Well, it was much more the Georgian era that drew me to Bath, but I was pleasantly surprised, upon visiting the Roman Baths center, by how the site managed to captivate me. In the interest of sticking to chronological order, let’s talk about that first.
When the Romans arrived in Britain around AD 43, they found a settlement of Celtic Britons around a site with a large natural hot spring and a shrine dedicated to a goddess named Sul. The invaders duly named the town Aquae Sulis – Latin for “the waters of Sul” – and built a major bath complex and temple around it (as shown above; click to enlarge photos). They encouraged the natives to continue worshipping Sul, with whom they identified their goddess Minerva, a factor that helped the Britons to accept the invasion.
In the Roman days, the large bath shown above was covered with a vault roof. After the baths were rediscovered and restored in the 18th century, they were left without a roof and the sunlight stimulated the growth of algae, which is what’s responsible for this green color. There were other baths (hotter and colder ones), as well as various other rooms (saunas, massage rooms) similar to what you find in modern spas today. This center is really well done – in addition to seeing the baths themselves, visitors are taken through the site’s history with interactive museum exhibits and a high-quality audio guide available in some 15 languages.
In 1979, some archaeologists poking around in the Sacred Spring, the innermost pool of the bath complex (shown in the cover image of this post), found a number of “curse tablets” that had been thrown into it during the Roman days. Unhappy individuals would carve requests for vengeance upon those who had wronged them onto bits of flattened lead, roll them up and toss them into the waters for direct delivery to the goddess Sul/Minerva who, they hoped, would proceed to take action.
The most common complaint was of theft, and the punishments sought tended to be rather harsh, along lines such as “may whoever nabbed my cloak while I was bathing lose his eyesight and his mind and never recover either until such day as he has returned my belongings to me”. Sometimes the accuser would make things easier for the goddess by listing the names of suspects. Did the curses work? We’ll never know, but a simple locker room could have prevented a lot of trouble!
(Don’t miss this great tutorial for making your very own curse tablet! And see if you can figure out what the author’s curse was.)
Also discovered in the baths were beautiful engraved semi-precious stones and colored glass that probably fell out of bathers’ jewelry, loosened from their settings by the heat.
The site does an excellent job of helping you travel back in time to the Roman days. Alongside some of the ruins, reproduction walls have been set up, but with a space between them and the floor to remind you which parts are real. In the various dark spaces of the labyrinthine baths, hologram-like projections of Roman bathers, complete with the sounds of their murmurs and dripping water, spookily recreate the mood of the distant past. These translucent beings were rather like ghosts… I wondered with a kind of delicious frisson whether one of them might turn and look at me.
Today, it isn’t possible to actually bathe in these baths, which are still lined with lead, but you can head to the Thermae Bath Spa for a steamy rooftop swim. Imagine how nice that would be in winter!
Fast-forward about 1,800 years and you’ll have arrived in Georgian Bath, the age of an author so loved by the people of England that they put her on the 10-pound note. I agree with this honor as she’s one of my favorites too. In Bath, you can visit the Jane Austen Centre, located on one of the same streets she lived on. Although it isn’t her former house, the center offers information about her life as well as artifacts from Georgian households and a short film hosted by the guy who played evil Mr. Wickham in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. At this point I should confess that Mr. Darcy himself doesn’t really have any connection with Bath; I’ve just shamelessly used him as shorthand for all things Jane Austen, and also because I liked the idea of contrasting him (in the Colin Firth incarnation) with Emperor Claudius above. The city features prominently in some of her other books though, in particular Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
If you’re already very well versed on Jane Austen’s life, touring the Jane Austen Centre probably won’t teach you anything new, but there are nicely done wax statues of her and Mr. Darcy, and you can dress up in Georgian clothing and have your photo taken. You may also like to browse in the gift shop (Darcy and Lizzie Christmas tree ornaments!) or (unlike me) have tea and fancy cakes in their upstairs Regency Tea Room. A brochure for the tea room even mentions vegan options, though I suspect you would want to call well ahead and check on that.
Every year in September, the city also hosts a Jane Austen festival.
The Jane Austen points of interest continue at the Pump Room, located right next to the Roman Baths, where people used to go to drink medicinal waters in the hope of curing their various ailments. It was also just a fashionable place to be, to see and be seen. It is here that Catherine, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, first meets a special someone. The Pump Room is now a restaurant but still serves water from the spring that supplies the Roman Baths. The illustration above, by Thomas Rowlandson, shows how the Pump Room appeared in 1798. At left in the foreground, we see someone in a Bath chair, an early wheelchair invented in the city for the many invalids who flocked there.
Another highlight of my visit was a tour through the beautiful Georgian home at No. 1 Royal Crescent, decorated as it might have looked between 1776 and 1796. Those of you who enjoyed my last post can imagine it as George Warleggan’s house (keep that in mind in a moment when you see what’s kept right next to his bed!).
A cheerful table laid for breakfast. While you ate your toast and sipped your morning beverage (hot chocolate? coffee?), you could catch up on the latest gossip in the local newspaper. Who has lately arrived to take the waters in Bath? Who has just promised their innocent daughter to that gouty old man living on Cheap Street?
A gentleman doing well enough to live in this home would also have had the latest scientific gadgets, including an updated globe (this one appears to be Italian), and a device you can use to cure your own ailments at home using electric sparks (I didn’t get a photo of that).
All ready for tea in the sitting room. Notice the cups have no handles, in the style of the cups used in China. For this reason, this type of cup is often called “tea bowl”.
The elegant dining room set for dessert. The curators of this house did an excellent job of recreating the intricate molded blancmanges and other fancy desserts of the day out of silicone. The plates used here each illustrate a different scene from Aesop’s Fables. There’s more I could say about this room, but I should leave some things for you to discover on your own when you visit (don’t forget to ask about the pineapple and what used to happen behind that folding screen in the corner!).
Below stairs, in the kitchen, chunks of sugar were cut off of loafs and then ground up in a mortar. For any food historians reading this: the cookbook on the table is Food and Cooking in 18th-Century Britain by Jennifer Stead. Meat was sometimes cooked on a turning spit powered by a dog in a sort of dismal hamster wheel. The breed normally used for this purpose has since become extinct. Thankfully, this practice was already on its way out by the advent of the Georgian era.
The gentleman’s bedroom, across the hall from his wife’s. Its furnishings include a washstand chest with a… chamber pot (?!) in its bottom drawer. Or perhaps it’s designed for footbaths. But if it IS a chamber pot, it’s hard to imagine how they could have kept that from smelling terrible even when closed.
But then perhaps no one would have noticed, as personal hygiene was shockingly basic in this period. Ironically, given the name of the city and what should have been easy access to healthful spring waters, people bathed and washed their hair just once a year. Women wore wigs day and night and kept their faces spackled with various substances including lead, followed by an egg-white wash and beauty patches to cover their smallpox scars. They also made liberal use of lavender, orange-blossom and rose essences, but one wonders how much difference that can that have made. The people of Bath were of course no different from the rest of the Western world in this regard, but the Romans, who not only washed but also exfoliated on a regular basis, would understandably have been appalled if they could have glimpsed into the future.
Apart from its museums (and there were many more I didn’t have time to visit), Bath is also just a very pretty town. Here, the Avon River is spanned by Pulteney Bridge, famous for being one of the world’s last bridges to still have shops along its full length on both sides. It was used in the 2012 film Les Misérables to recreate the look of Revolutionary-era Paris – Russell Crowe as Javert jumps off it to his (Javert’s!) death.
You can always stroll through Bath on your own, but a nice way to get a broader view of the city is to go on a walking tour. I went on this one with the charismatic and knowledgeable Mr. Elliott and definitely recommend it.
“What about food?” you may be wondering. “Are vegan options hard to find?” you may or may not be about to ask. The answer is no, they’re blissfully easy to find, as they generally are in the UK.
As much as Bath is steeped in ancient and less-ancient history, it also has one foot resolutely in the 21st century, so plant-based food is a thing there. I went to and recommend Chapel Arts Café (all vegan), where I had garlicky mushroom flatbreads with cashew crème fraîche, followed by carrot cake, The Green Rocket (mostly vegan), which offers a seitan and leek dish with puff pastry, a salad platter with hummus and tatziki sauce and onion rings, and Zizzi (a UK-wide omni chain with lots of vegan options – ask for their separate vegan menu), where I had “beetballs” and pizza with housemade vegan mozzarella. All really good! There were more veg restaurants than this, but sadly not enough time to try them all.
So there you have the lovely city of Bath, in a very brief and non-exhaustive nutshell. Definitely worth the detour for a weekend if you’re going to be in London. In the meantime, for a closer look at the city, check out the many mini-documentaries on YouTube (like this one about the Roman Baths, or this one about houses in Jane Austen’s day).