The life of a tourist

Come with me, if you dare, on a fantastic journey through the biggest tourist attraction in the city of Bath. Unsurprisingly and perhaps a little disappointingly for those who weren’t already aware, this tourist attraction is a bath. More specifically, it is the ruins of a Roman bathing house and temple.

Bath (or Aquae Sulis to the Romans) has been a city for nearly two thousand years at this point, and probably even longer. It is the site of the only hot springs in Britain, and as such it was of significant interest to the Romans and the cultures that existed here before them. The general consensus according to the museum displays is that the Romans constructed their bathing facility around the springs in about 76 A.D. during the seventh year of the reign of Vespasian. Though artifacts from earlier cultures have been found here, the Romans subscribed to the “bulldoze it and build over it” school of urban planning and the ruins that can be seen today are all of Roman origin. I am using the word bulldoze as a metaphor here – the Romans were relatively advanced but I don’t think they had bulldozers.

I imagine you are duly impressed with the sheer amount of facts I’m throwing down in this post, so you have a pretty good appreciation for how I felt upon entering the museum here. There are placards and ancient relics and artifacts galore, to the point where if you really want to examine everything you’d have to stay for hours, and you’d probably lose touch with the fact that the museum itself is set in the ruins of the baths. There are even three different audio tours throughout the museum – one for adults, one narrated by Bill Bryson giving his thoughts on various exhibits, and one for children. You could spend a long time here.

I doubted for a moment whether I was mentally ready to attempt the adult commentary instead of the children’s, but I eventually decided to press my luck and took an audio tour device which theoretically contained all the information necessary to occupy the adult mind. Looping it around my neck, I set to the task of completely ignoring it for most of my stay in the museum.

Naturally, the tour starts with a view of the main bathing area and of the hot springs. The springs are the only of their kind in Britain, and it is to this fact that Bath owes its origins as a Roman city. The baths existed as a meeting place, commercial center, and there was even a temple somewhere nearby apparently. The only ruins I was able to see were of the bathing area, unfortunately, but they are indeed fantastically preserved. From the springs and the main bathing area I strolled into a few rooms containing a some of the stone sculptures that had been found at the site. One of them was of a woman’s head with a fairly impressive hybrid afro/updo. The sign on its pedestal informed me that the hairstyle dated from the later 1st century A.D., which rather surprised me because I didn’t know that anyone studied historical hairstyles.

The museum was teeming with other guests, all of them listening to their handheld tour devices. For their sake I put on what I thought was an air of intelligent appreciation for the various boring inscribed tablets they were considering and left the room.

I followed a staircase down out of the Room of Boring Artifacts and into the much more interesting ruins of the open-air courtyard to the baths, which is now enclosed and covered up by the foundation of the museum above it. A wooden pathway had been built over the ruins, but looking down I could see the remains of the ancient roman stoneworks that had formed the courtyard. A few yards off a pool of water had formed that contained what were no doubt Ancient Roman Coins, and nearer to the edge of the pathway (just over the handrail in fact) was an Ancient Roman Mathematical Study Guide. Clearly a job for an Ancient Roman Janitor. I moved along the pathway but was trapped behind a large guided tour group, and briefly considered making my escape through an Ancient Roman Fire Exit before managing to snake my way through the crowd and deeper into the museum.

Probably the most impressive part of the whole facility is the incredible ingenuity the Romans applied to its construction, and this is most apparent in the steam rooms. Hot steam flowed beneath the floors and through hollow tiles up the walls, resulting in walls and floors that were warm to the touch. Water from the hot springs was channeled into the main bathing area, while water from a more distant and cooler spring was brought in to form a cooler pool. Very impressive considering the entire thing was complete by around the 4th century AD.

I’m going to gloss over the rest of the museum because A.) I’m running out of time and B.) I stopped paying attention anyway. The only thing I want to mention is that the area around the pools (which are not fenced off in any way) contains signs with a message similar to the following:

“Warning. The spa pool water is untreated and is not safe to drink or even to touch. Spa water can be tasted in the Pump Room.”

Spa water can be tasted in the Pump Room.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been to Bath, so I can’t immediately attest to my first thoughts upon seeing the murky green waters, but I’m relatively certain they were not even remotely close to “Ooh, I want to taste that!” At this point I had planned to tell you how the water tasted. However, the best I can do is “light and airy” because the tasting booth was closed for renovation.

Tomorrow I’m off on the Cotswold Way, my first encounter with a National Trail. I’m already scheming a few ways to shave off some of the trail’s more frivolous departures from a direct line to the northeast, but I’m encouraged by the fact that I have thus far walked 233 miles at an average of 13.7ish per day, which includes the three days I was laid up in St. Columb Major. Since then I am averaging closer to 17 miles per day.

As usual I will update next time I get a chance. Cheers!


8 Responses

  1. Hey, the beginning of your trip has disappeared from your embedded map..everything before Taunton has gone. Can you get it back? or does the program only hold so much?

  2. Hey Cousin Alex, thanks for your thorough description of Bath. Feels like we’re there with you, contemplating the murkey waters and ancient Roman hairstyles. Glad you’re able to have some fun on your trip and not just walk yourself to death. Oh, and Noah is sad to hear that the Ancient Romans had no bulldozers. What did the average two-year-old Roman toddler have to ogle at?

  3. See, I would tie the murky waters comment to giving Noah a bath after he did a number…2

  4. Alex,

    Nice blog…can only imagine what happened at those Ancient Baths in days of old.

    Have a great walk.


    Paul and Dad

  5. Alex – What a great post – thank you! It was especially interesting to me that you noticed the women’s hairstyles. I had no idea this would hold such an interest.

    And, yes, I was duly impressed by the sheer amount of facts you were throwing down. You sounded like an official tour guide!

    Cheers –

  6. Hey sorry about the other comment that was a drunk Mitch trying to be funny. Wish you could have been here with us. Wings lost last night, series is now 2-1 Wings.

  7. You *didn’t* listen to the Bryson tape? Vince, I’m both shocked and disappointed. Along those lines, how could you not take a drink of the Bath water? You’ve drank far worse back at the mansion (granted, i can see how the digestive side effects would be counterproductive for hiking.)

  8. In response to Chris … Ancient Roman 2 year olds oogled Ancient Roman Thomas the Trains ….. Ancient Roman DUH!

    Also, the Wings dropped game 3 in Pitt, so it’s 2-1 with the game 4 tomorrow night.

    Ancient Roman Good Bye

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