Bathing in history

UPGRADE: A customer receives a Watsu treatment in a Roman bath at the Thermae Bath Spa.
UPGRADE: A customer receives a Watsu treatment in a Roman bath at the Thermae Bath Spa.

The Romans had their faults - rape, pillage and wearing dodgy togas among them. But they were on to something when they discovered the hot mineral waters bubbling out of the ground in England's south-west were just the thing to cure ailments and ease aching muscles.

We're about to follow 3000 years of tradition by taking a public plunge in Bath's hot springs. Fortunately, it gurgles out at the rate of 1.3 million litres a day, so the bathwater has changed a few times since the Romans wallowed in it.

Having foolishly tangled with the A4 motorway on a Friday evening, we arrive in Britain's most perfectly preserved Georgian city stressed and weary, ripe for a soak in the warm, curative waters.

Not surprisingly, we head straight to the roof-top pool at Thermae Bath Spa, the stunning bathing and therapy complex built atop one of three sites in the city where the water rises to the surface. It's a toss-up which is the most relaxing: the 45-degree water or the panoramic views over the city of Bath's rooftops and its imposing abbey, which you could almost reach out and touch.

According to our hotel receptionist, the long-standing joke in this city built on a history of bathing was that for 35 years, there were no public baths. But in 2006, amid major budget and deadline blowouts, architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw waved a restoration wand over the 18th-century building and since then, around 200,0000 visitors a year have come to see what all the fuss is about.

Spend too long in the open-air pool and you'll start to understand how a poached egg feels, but 30 minutes is more than enough time to unpick the kinks in our shoulders.

We don the towelling robes provided and head one floor down to the steam room, a large open space dominated by four huge, curved glass chambers, each with its own different aroma. Thanks to the state-of-the-art pods and a theatrical light show that pierces the darkness, the space looks more like something you'd find on the Starship Enterprise. I'm no spa virgin, but this $80 million shrine to well-being is one of slickest I've encountered.

The Romans, of course, never had it this good. They may have settled the city formerly known as Aquae Sulis, but their spa experience wouldn't have been up to the standard we've just enjoyed. For a glimpse into how the ancient Romans, Celts and Saxons cleansed themselves, we visit the Roman Baths, one of the most interesting sites in a city where history spills from almost every pore. The site is now reserved for tourists rather than bathers - probably just as well, because the green and scummy water of the Great Bath doesn't look too inviting. The museum features remnants of ancient steam rooms, gender segregated baths and even some of the original Roman plumbing and central heating systems. Particularly fascinating are the displays which show how the Romans not only used the springs to cure their leprosy and other ills, but also as a centre for worship, to conduct business and, rather less endearingly, to sacrifice small animals. Tip: don't refuse the audio guide - it's not only hugely informative, you'll also enjoy an entertaining commentary from author Bill Bryson which alone is worth the price of the entry ticket.

If you fancy a side order of history with your lunch, drop into Sally Lunn's Refreshment House, located in the oldest house in Bath, which has been serving sally lunn buns since 1680. Legend has it that Sally was a French refugee who used her knowledge of brioche-making to create the famous buns whose quality is matched only by their quantity. They are, in fact, huge but are surprisingly light and absolutely delicious. We limber up with a savoury offering - half a toasted bun laden with Scottish smoked salmon - and then go for sweet versions smothered in home-made cinnamon butter, tip-tree jam and clotted cream.

Feeling guilty about our carnival of carbohydrates, we power walk through the knot of cobbled streets, marvelling at the Georgian buildings hewn almost entirely from honey- coloured Bath stone. We have, in part, the suits at Unesco to thank for this: in 1987, the city was designated a World Heritage site, the only entire city in the United Kingdom to achieve this status.

One of the best spots to appreciate the listed buildings is the Royal Crescent, a perfect arch of houses overlooking Royal Victoria Park. Designed in 1767 by architect John Wood (who, with his father, also John Wood, was responsible for developing huge swathes of the city), the Crescent contains about 30 houses. Almost 250 years later, it's still prime real estate, judging by the number of Porches parked outside. No 1 Royal Crescent has been preserved as a museum which, apparently, shows what the residences would have looked like back in the day.

I wouldn't know, because I was more interested in checking out the Fashion Museum, a small but elegantly formed exhibition that showcases three centuries of fashion, from the late 16th century to the present day. The curators have obviously called in some favours, because pieces range from Regency cotton dresses and Mary Quant minis to heavily bejewelled 17th-century gloves and the slashed-to-the waist green Versace dress worn by Jennifer Lopez to the Grammy Awards.

You can strap yourself into a corset and try on a caged crinoline dress from the 1800s; however, after scoffing so many Sally Lunn buns at lunchtime I politely decline the offer.

Being a diehard fashionista, I could have stayed there all day, were it not for an appointment with Bath's most famous part-time daughter, Jane Austen.

The Jane Austen Centre showcases the five years the author spent in Bath, the setting for much of novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Even if you're not a fan (like my husband), you'll be entranced by the exhibition and its insight into the enduring popularity of Austen's work. Ironically, while Bath remains in love with the author, Austen couldn't say the same about the city: turns out she was so stalked by poverty and sorrow during her time here she couldn't wait to leave.

Had the author been around 200 years later, and timed her visit for a hot July weekend, she would no doubt have been powerless - as were we - to resist this city's considerable charms.


Where to stay: The Francis on the Square is smack bang in the centre of the action.

Don't miss the stairwell where photos of celebrities who've stayed there will keep you entertained for hours.

Where to eat: There's a branch of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's restaurant, Jamie's Italian, in Milsom Pl, essential if you're a fan of his.

Quick links: Thermae Bath Spa; The Roman Baths; Sally Lunn; The Fashion Museum; The Jane Austen Centre.

The Dominion Post