Taking a Bath

Taking a Bath

In my last post, the first in a series about “taking the cure,” and my latest trip to England, I wrote about drinking spa water. But English spas also have a long history of bathing in spa waters, perhaps even longer than that of drinking. Bath was famously originally a Roman city (or was it founded by King Bladud?), and as I hadn’t seen the Roman baths since my first visit there, I decided to do a redux.

If your travels to England happen to take you to Bath during the summer months, I highly recommend doing what I did, which is escaping the extremely crowded city centre around the Pump Room, Roman Baths, and Bath Abbey during the day, and seeing the higher and less-crowded sights, like No. 1 Bath Crescent, the Museum of Bath Architecture, and the Assembly Rooms with the Fashion Museum in the basement. Then do the Roman Baths in the evening by torchlight, when they’re far more atmospheric and less crowded:

Roman Baths and Bath Abbey

One other travel tip I will give you is that you should certainly include SOME sort of bathing in the famous Bath waters as part of the trip, particularly if you intend to go see the Roman Baths, which will also give you a glimpse of one of the restored Georgian baths, the King’s Bath:

The King’s Bath, shot from near the Pump Room. The water level was kept higher in Georgian days up to the end of the reddish stone. Bathers used the rings to hold on to.
The King’s Bath, shot from near the exit of the Roman Baths. You can see the Pump Room’s beautiful bow window.

The reason for this is simple: the Romans seriously knew how to spa. After learning all about their hot and cold baths and steam rooms and and oil massages, and viewing the beautiful, steaming pool that still looks like you could take a dip, you will, indeed, want to take a dip. This is obviously not allowed in the Roman Baths, and for a time after 1978, when toxic amoeba were found in the water, nobody was drinking or bathing in Bath’s famous waters anywhere in the city. But a new, clean source was found, and a new spa center built, Thermae, which has two hot spring fed pools, steam rooms and other goodies in its main complex, and also allows offers swimming in the historic Cross Bath:

The exterior of the historic Cross Bath.

I’ve done both before and this time opted for the full complex, as there’s just more to do. One pool has a spectacular rooftop view of the city, although I went in the afternoon this time and it was completely packed (Thermae is another attraction best done during their evening hours). The other pool, on the ground level, was much more reasonable, and this one has a sort of lazy river, which I and a whole lot of other grown adults seem to find oddly delightful. Thermae has a strong no photos policy, for obvious reasons with pools packed with folks in bathing suits, but you can see what the pools and amenities look like on its site.

Bath also has a new option for bathing in its spa waters, at the Gainsborough’s Spa Village, I got a massage there and used its combination of hot and warm pools, steam room, and sauna, and drank approximately 26 cups of its spiced Georgian drinking chocolate, which is probably not as healing as Bath’s waters but sure was delicious. The Spa Village was MUCH less inhabited than Thermae (although to be fair, I spa-ed in the evening for this one), and it didn’t have a photo policy, so I snagged a pic with my 360 cam in its waterproof case when no one was visible in their suits aside from me:

Interestingly, although I was of course wearing my bathing suit, for a very long time bathing in Bath was done in the nude. I find this one of those fascinating things about history – it’s easy to view it as a continual march towards more liberal and less modest sexual attitudes, but that’s not actually the case. For not only was bathing done in the nude, the sexes were mixed. That’s right, the Tudors and the Stuarts were regularly going about co-ed naked bathing! As Phyllis Hembry writes in The English Spa, 1560 1815: A Social History:
An observer in 1634 wrote that people of all kinds ‘…appear so nakedly, and fearfully, in their uncouth naked postures…and put one in mind of the Resurrection.’

As Hembry writes, only the Queen’s or Women’s Bath was restricted for women, which resulted in “unseemly and immodest” behaviour in the other baths. This practice did not survive long into the Georgian era, and in 1737 regulations were passed that men must wear drawers or a waistcoat and women shifts, thus putting an end to total nakedness, although attempts to end mixed sex bathing were not as successful.

I was in Bath for three nights, so decided to go for a trifecta of spa-going, less for the purposes of research and more because between my day job and writing, I’m frequently in front of a computer for 12-14 hours a day! My last treatment was at the Lush Spa in Bath. Titled “Tales of Bath,” the treatment involves a bath in a claw foot tub with a bath bomb almost the size of my head, bookended by massage. During the bath, you’re told the story of that aforementioned King Bladud, who contracted leprosy and became a swineherd (this rendition is read more poetically in lieu of music, and features more mystical elements), but then found a spring that cured his pigs’ sores, and his own leprosy. That spring was, of course, one of those feeding Bath.

Candlelit bath? Don’t mind if I do.

I wanted to get the treatment done in Bath because the story itself was most relevant there, but this one doesn’t use the Bath waters, instead adding the minerals via the giant bath bomb. And this was a theme in bathing development in British spa history, as well. Bath’s springs range from 117° to 120°F, while Buxton’s are 82°F, which made these spas early centers for bathing. But the many drinking spas wanted to get in on this bathing action, and thus a trend for cold bathing was born, beginning about 1660. Hembry writes of a spring in Matlock, Derbyshire, that began to be used for cold bathing in 1698, although I have strong suspicions that the lead-lined bathtub used there probably did more harm than good.

Different sorts of treatments began to be developed involving bathing: bucketing, wet-pumping, dry-pumping, and vapour baths among them. Hembry doesn’t explain what the difference is between these, nor do any of the other sources I’ve seen the terms mentioned in, and let’s just say that googling certain of those terms today quickly leads you down an x-rated path that I was not inclined to follow further.

While I’ve attempted to be as immersive (literally) in this research as possible, taking a cold bath was the one thing I was not even about to attempt, as I am a huge wimp about cold. And eventually many of the spas offering cold bathing began offering coal-heated warm baths as well; ready access coal was key for a spa center for this reason, as well as its allowing a winter season, with cheap coal used for heating.

After all, for the wealthy, why go somewhere to bathe in cold water, when one could build a nice little showpiece plunge pool at one’s estate, where one can bathe at any time, and impress the guests? And this is precisely what many landowners did.

Bath house built by the Duke of Montagu for his son, at the village of Buckler’s Hard. It used the brackish water of the Beaulieu River. Now it’s a twee little residence.
Plunge pool in the grotto of the gardens at Stourhead.

And yes, I went to Stourhead as part of this trip, and the gardens were beautiful. The house was quite crowded, but it’s still an excellent and handsome example of early Palladian architecture.

Exterior of the house at Stourhead.

I’ll leave you all with more Stourhead photos, 360s, and video – if the gardens look familiar, it’s because they were featured in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie. And stay tuned for next month, when we’ll be taking a closer look at life in the spa towns and those troublesome new upstarts…the seaside resorts.

Gallery inside Stourhead

Temple of Apollo at Stourhead










19 Responses to Taking a Bath

  1. Thanks for sharing the photos of videos from your trip. It looks like a lot of fun. I was surprised to learn that they bathed in the nude with the opposite genders.

  2. I would so love to visit all those places you describe in word and picture. Someday. Thanks for the information, not only historical, but when and how to visit these amazing places today. I hope to make use of your travel tips in the future.

  3. Nude mixed bathing – no thanks. When we vacationed in 2004 and visited Bath I found the mineral water distasteful. It was April and too cool for bathing. The 360 degree photos didn’t work for me either. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sheila! I recall seeing that they did some updating to the plumbing for the Pump Room and I think that might be part of why it’s less distasteful now, because I also recall it being much worse in my previous visit where I drank it.

      Sorry about the 360 photos — I think it depends on your browser. But that’s why I did a mix of 360s and regular ones, since I wasn’t sure whether they’d work for everyone.

  4. Lovely! Bath is one place I’ve wanted to visit since seeing the movie of Northanger Abbey, altho’ I have no interest in drinking the waters. Bath looks rather more pleasant than the therapeutic “bathing” in the mud we did some years ago in Lake Techirghiol, Romania near the Black Sea resorts. People slathered lake mud all over themselves and sat in the sun for it to dry, then washed it off in the sea. Supposed to be very therapeutic for rheumatic and osteoarthritic ailments. We even brought a couple of bottles of the mud home with us (it’s illegal to harvest and sell it, but we bought some anyway — shhhh!) and when I injured my foot a couple of years later I found that it really did help! More about it at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Techirghiol

    • I’ve never heard of Lake Techirghiol, but I think I have to agree that being covered in mud doesn’t sound quite as pleasant to me as Bath’s pools, haha. Although I guess if it has therapeutic benefit I’d try it, and sounds like it does!

      Thanks for your comment, Janis!

  5. Now that is my kind of immersive research! I know where I would like to stay if I ever make it to Bath! Yes, I was quite ‘scandalized’ about the nude bathing and would agree the wet shift is something along the lines of Darcy’s wet shirt! I recognized the temple immediately. The grounds looked amazing! Thank you for such wonderful details and pictures!

  6. Sophie, that was great! I would never have guessed that they still did mixed bathing in Regency times. In fact, I feel sort of like I read that wrong, it seems so scandalous. I mean, how much can a wet shift conceal? Your pictures are wonderful. That 360 thing is really amazing. How do you do that? It sounds like an amazing experience. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks, Summer! It totally surprised me, too. I guess a wet shift concealed more than what was shown when they were all naked, but I have to think the most genteel women started going to the women’s only bath. And from what I read private bathing began to become more popular. But yeah I find it mind-boggling…everywhere else it’s a big deal to see a woman’s ankle and they get to Bath and they’re all, WET T-SHIRT CONTEST?!?

      You can do 360 photos with your phone if you have Google Street View (at least for Androids…not sure about other phones), but I ended up getting a 360 camera before my trip and I’m glad I did…the quality isn’t as high as my regular camera but it’s nice to be able to capture everything.

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