You can’t avoid water in Bath. Even its name implies the liquid! The name of the “Avon”, the river that flows through the city, actually means “River”, the station is called “Bath Spa”, the Roman Baths have been designated the 29th most popular UK Visitor Attraction 2015 (according to Visit Britain) and the Romans originally named the settlement Aquae Sulis – meaning the waters of Sulis. So, naturally when the council were considering ways to celebrate the Millennium in 2000, a water theme was a natural choice.
Until the late 1970s the public could still swim in the natural spring waters, just as their forebears had done for over 1,000 years. After the baths were closed due to the tragic death of a child from a strain of bacteria found in the waters, the idea of re-opening them was mooted over the decades. Over 1 million litres of water flow from the natural springs every day, and none of it was being utilised until the Bath Spa Project began looking at creating a new bath complex for the year 2000.
In the 1980s the Thermal Research Project had drilled down and found a supply of clean water that could be used, kickstarting interest again. In fact, the Thermae Bath Spa draws water from three springs – the King’s Spring under Stall Street, the Cross Bath, and the Hetling Spring.
As the project took longer than expected and was over budget, it wasn’t until 2006 that the Thermae Bath Spa opened its doors. It was worth the wait and the £40 million cost.
Designed by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners (architects of The Eden Project in Cornwall, Pulkovo Airport in Russia, and Southern Cross Station in Melbourne, Australia) they have used a mix of natural Bath stone (from local Limpley Stoke quarries) and glass, wrapping around the historic baths already on the site, and incorporating them sympathetically into the structure.
With the 10 year anniversary of its opening only a year away, and having never personally experienced the baths, it was a real treat to go to the Thermae Bath Spa and enjoy what thousands of tourists and locals have for the past nine years.
Starting my tour, I began at the separate Cross Bath, which can be seen at the end of Bath Street. This Grade I listed building, built in 1789 by Thomas Baldwin, lies on the site of an original medieval bath. In fact, underneath the current pool is the original pool floor. When designing the new Spa the architects were up against strict historic protection orders, but despite these limitations they have been able to blend in modern facilities without one really noticing. Glass panels disappear into cracks that were already in the stone work, and where the original changing area was, doors and a roof have been added.
The Cross Bath is directly fed by its own spring which can be seen naturally bubbling up into a water feature especially created a the edge of the pool. The water is not pumped up and is a constant 46oC, but through filtration the water is cooled to 35oC so that it is more pleasant to bathe in. This bath is hired separately from the main baths and is great if you want to have exclusive use of the spring waters and a private bathing area.
Walking from the Cross Bath to the main entrance of the Thermae Bath Spa you are faced with a wall of glass, but to the side you have the magnificent Hot Bath building and Number eight Bath Street. Number eight can be easily recognised as it’s a small 3 storey town house with 2 statues above the front door. Their heads are missing, but the statues are said to represent King Edgar, the first King of England who was crowned here in Bath in 973AD, and another King, possibly Osric or Bladud. These statues came from the original 17th Century Guildhall.
Entering the Spa you are welcomed by friendly staff and given an electronic wrist band which allows you to enter and exit the complex. It also controls your locker and can be used in the restaurant to add food and drink to your bill. Here you are also handed a towel, a robe and slippers to use inside.
Interestingly the locker rooms are on a completely separate level to the shower rooms and baths, but it does mean that no one is walking dirty shoes through the shower room areas. The complex in fact is kept clean and tidy by a plethora of staff who quietly go about their duties seamlessly.
A tip on using the lockers – although there are instructions on how to use, I did find it helped to hold your locker shut and then press the wristband against the electronic pad for as long as needed until the display flashes that the locker is shut. It’s very easy to remove your wristband too quickly and find the locker has popped open again.
Although the toilets are segregated, be aware that the changing rooms and shower rooms at the Spa are communal, but I found everyone was very discreet. There are private changing booths you can use to get changed in as well.
The varying levels and facilities are accessed by stairs, ramps or lifts, and everything is signposted clearly. I still found myself making a wrong turn here and there, but there were plenty of staff about to ask.
The main thing that surprised me was the lack of noise. Children under 16 years old are not permitted in the Spa, and I soon found myself relaxing into the peace and tranquility of the setting. This certainly contrasts with the streets teeming with tourists and school groups outside!
It is also odd wandering everywhere wearing just a swimming costume and robe, but then you soon realise that everyone else is the same, and you forget about it quickly. In fact it soon becomes strange when you see someone, like a member of staff, fully dressed!
The first bath you come to is the large Minerva pool (named after the Goddess Minerva whose bronze head was discovered in the 18th Century on the site of a Roman Temple dedicated to her in nearby Stall Street). For those of you who may have learnt to swim here many years ago, this is the site of the old 1920s Beau Street swimming baths. Today, the Minerva pool is a wonderful and tranquil mix of wood, stone and glass. Four large white pillars hold up a Bath stone cube, but you don’t feel oppressed by it. In fact the surrounding glass adds a vastness to the pool area, and it feels light and airy.
Stepping into the spring waters for the first time you’re enveloped by the pleasant warmth, and you instantly begin to feel relaxed. The waters here are a few degrees lower than the Cross Bath outside, but remain a constant 33.5oC.
After the initial warmth, I was struck also by the lack of smell. Having tasted the waters in the Pump Room, I know that sulphur is a component of Bath Spa water. However, it appears that this mineral has been filtered out (along with Iron), or certainly the smell had. The filtration process ensures that there are no bacteria build ups, and the waters still contain over 40 naturally occurring minerals, even after filtration.
Remember this is not a swimming pool as such. Relaxation is the aim of these baths, not doing lengths. Most people were using foam rollers to aid their floatation, and there was a delightful current that gently swept bathers along behind the Jacuzzi area. You could also enjoy an invigorating jet stream of water that shot out intermittently, like a giant waterfall. This was great for pummelling away knots in your shoulders and neck if you stood underneath it.
Through a glass wall adjacent to the Minerva bath you can enter the treatment room area and the Hot Bath. The Hot Bath was built around 1777 by John Wood the Younger, and adapted by G P Manners in 1831. It is used for the Spa’s signature treatment – Watsu, or water shiatsu. This treatment is for a maximum of two people at a time, and looked wonderfully relaxing.
The twelve treatment rooms surrounding this bath offer a range of massages, facials, body wraps and other treatments to further add to your pampering experience; but must be booked in advance of your visit.
Moving up a floor I entered the Steam Room and Waterfall area. A wall of steam met me as a I opened the double doors and entered the large room. It looked like the Transporter room from Star Trek, with four separate glass walled pods situated around a central shower area. However, instead of beaming people up, this was where water cascaded down on the public at varying speeds and temperatures after their turn in the steam room pods.
The essences used in the steam rooms vary regularly and seasonally. While I was there I enjoyed cleansing Euco Menthol, Lemongrass and Ginger, Sandalwood, and the fragrant Lotus Flower. The stone benches inside the pods can be hot to sit on, but you don’t have to spend too long in each room to feel the benefits on your skin and in your lungs.
After the steam rooms you could either wander around on the terrace outside, relaxing on the wicker chairs and loungers, or you can make your way up to the final bath, the spectacular roof top pool! From here you can view Bath from a totally different perspective. Protected by other buildings the Thermae Bath Spa is quite hidden from view, yet from it you can view the rooftops of the city, look into nearby courtyards, stare at the pinnacles of Bath Abbey, and observe the green hills of the surrounding countryside. Stepping once again into the warm waters this pool, like the Minerva pool, contains neck massage jets, air benches to sit on, and a bubbling Jacuzzi area.
The roof top pool was the busiest pool, unsurprisingly. But it didn’t distract from the relaxing experience. However, if you want to avoid the main crowds it is best to get here as soon as the Spa opens, or enjoy the rooftop terrace at twilight. It is not always possible when on holiday to avoid weekends, but Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often quieter too, and would be a better time to head here.
It was surprising how so much relaxing can build up an appetite. After I had changed I chose to sample the delights of the Springs Cafe Restaurant, located on the first floor of the Spa. Many people were still in their robes while dining, so you can choose whether you change beforehand. This room was light and fresh with some great contemporary chandeliers and art work that blended in and matched the overall Spa theme of curves, water and light.
On the menu was a seasonal selection of light bites, sandwiches, as well as main meals and desserts; plus a vast array of drinks. You could choose from cleansing smoothies to decadent champagne, there was something for everyone to enjoy.
To start with I chose some warm foccacia bread with cream cheese, followed by mushroom pasta which was not overly creamy and had big tubes of rigatoni pasta. A refreshing glass of champagne pepped me up, while I also sampled one of the Spa’s fresh fruit smoothies. When you’re bathing you forget that the combined heat and minerals will dehydrate you. There are plenty of water fountains you can drink from on all levels in the Spa, but it was good to top up in the restaurant as well.
Being too full for pudding, even though the homemade cakes looked very tempting, I opted to end the meal with a hot chocolate. This came served to me with a bit size sample of sticky toffee pudding that just rounded the meal off perfectly.
Stumbling back into the bright sunshine after my wonderful relax and lunch, I took a walk over to the Hetling Pump Rooms, directly opposite the main Spa complex and to the left of the Cross Bath. Here, in another historic building, this time dating to 1718, there is a small exhibition about the history of the springs, the history of bathing, details about the original baths, as well as the Thermae Bath Spa project. This exhibition is free, but you can also pay to use a hand set (cost £10) to listen to further information or to listen in another language.
Around the corner from the museum, within the same building, is the main Spa shop. Here you can purchase some of the products used in the treatments at the Spa, along with small souvenirs of Bath. The staff in here were very helpful and great at recommending products for all sorts of requirements – from skin problems to insomnia.
The Thermae Bath Spa is more than just a series of baths, is is an all round experience. Whether you choose to just enjoy the waters, or add a treatment and dining on top, you will certainly come out feeling calmer and more relaxed.
Although the Spa cannot advocate that the minerals will help or heal any medical issues, the general ambiance and warmth of the waters certainly creates an holistic experience, and I certainly found that I slept well that night!
Bath can truly live up to its name again with the Thermae Bath Spa at its heart.
Spa Breaks are available from Bailbrook Lodge from only £125 per person, for 2 nights bed and champagne breakfast, and includes a 2 or 3 hour visit to the Thermae Bath Spa, PLUS a 3 course lunch or early evening dinner at Brasserie Brunel in the heart of Bath.
For further information about our Spa breaks, incuding upgrades to Four Poster bedrooms, please call us on (+44)1225 859090 or email email@example.com
With many thanks to Charlotte Hanna and Thermae Bath Spa. Images courtesy of and copyright of Thermae Bath Spa, and Catherine Pitt.