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Catherine Beattie visits Thermae Bath Spa - the only place in the UK where you can bathe in natural thermal waters

A first visit to Thermae Bath Spa

My work as a travel writer has taken me to spas all over the world but only recently to one nearer home – Thermae Bath Spa, the UK’s only natural thermal spa. I finally ticked this wonderful spa off my wish list this year after ‘taking the waters’ one wet and windy March afternoon.

Thermal water is an intrinsic part of beautiful Bath – a  city that owes its very existence to this abundant natural resource feedings three city centre springs with a million litres of hot mineral water every day. The famous thermal waters have attracted visitors for centuries and are still a major draw – both to the ancient Roman Baths that mark the beginning of Bath’s spa history and more recently to the modern Thermae Bath Spa – the only place in the UK where you can bathe in natural thermal waters. The history of Aqua Sulis, as the Romans called Bath, is a fascinating story of prosperity, decline and restoration.

view of ancient Roman Baths, Bath

A fascinating history of prosperity…..

Thermal spas and their miraculous cures are the stuff of legends. The discovery of Bath’s hot springs preceded the Romans, and is believed to date back to 863BC when the King’s son, Prince Bladud, was cured of leprosy after bathing in the healing waters. In the centuries that followed, Celts, Romans, Saxons and Georgians all used the waters for therapeutic purposes. The 18th /early 19th century was the golden era of the traditional spa. Bath was the country’s most important spa town and part of the social calendar for the upper classes and wealthy elite, who arrived on a seasonal basis to ‘take the waters’ and display their wealth in social activities like dancing, gambling, concert going and promenading in the streets.

Bath pioneered the development of European spas, yet by the end of the 19th century, its popularity and that of other traditional spas like Buxton, Cheltenham and Harrogate, was in decline. During the same period, continental spas were prospering, with towns and hospitality industries developing around thermal springs and along the coasts to accommodate growing visitor numbers. Spa treatments in Europe became increasingly therapeutic with ‘cures’ prescribed by doctors and reimbursable by governments or health insurance schemes.

…. decline

The advent of the NHS in 1948 sounded the death knell for the UK’s traditional spas. Treatments like hydrotherapy were side lined in favour of new drugs and diagnostic and surgical techniques. When NHS funding for the Medical Treatment Centre in Bath was withdrawn in 1976, the spa was no longer viable. Then in 1978, a harmful bacteria in the thermal water caused the closure of all spa bathing and drinking facilities – a situation that lasted for almost 30 years until the restoration of the spa in 2006. According to local historian Giles White, this was the longest period in at least 1,200 years when Bath’s waters were not available for bathing. A valuable natural resource went down the drain and ended up in the River Avon.

In the mid- 1990s, the Bath and North East Somerset Council (B&NES) was encouraged to apply to the National Lottery for funding to restore the spa and regenerate its surroundings. The successful bid saw The Bath Spa Project receive £7.78 million towards the capital costs of the work, which was estimated at around £13.5 million with completion expected in 2000. But it was to be almost another decade before the project was finished, as costs soared and lengthy legal battles with suppliers and contractors ensued over the use of faulty or unsuitable materials. The final cost of the project has never been revealed, but is believed to be around £40 million.

View of thermae Bath Spa

… and successful restoration

Thermae Bath Spa finally opened in August 2006 after years of delays and difficulties associated with developing such a restricted site in the heart of a historical city. The city’s splendid new facility blends old and new styles of architecture and comprises the contemporary New Royal Bath and five restored listed buildings including the Cross and Hot Baths. The New Royal Bath, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw’s spectacular glass and stone ‘cube’ is a 21st century wonder, a fusion of glass, stone, light and water. The sophisticated modern facilities extend over several floors, encompassing thermal pools, a magnificent wellness suite, a spa restaurant and comfortable well-equipped treatment rooms offering an extensive menu of dry and wet treatments.

 

The new spa’s popularity is proving to be a significant driver of tourism to Bath. A survey by the South West Research Company in 2014 showed that nearly two thirds of visitors to the region travelled to simply experience the spa, which 97 per cent rated as good or very good.

 

‘Taking the waters’

 

Entrance to Thermae Bath Spa

Entrance to Thermae Bath Spa

Arriving late afternoon for our Twilight for Two Package, we find the spa busy with tourists and locals but not uncomfortably overcrowded. It is relatively easy to find spare lockers and cubicles in the unisex changing suite. Other than swimwear, all you need to use the spa (towel, robe and slippers) is provided.  We have three hours to use the pools and facilities and our package also includes a main course dish in the Springs Cafe Restaurant with a glass of wine or another drink.

I start my visit with an extra treat – a pre-booked facial in one of the Source treatment rooms on the second floor. A friendly therapist shows me into an elegantly furnished room for what the spa menu describes as a Tailor-Made Facial. This bespoke facial uses Aromatherapy Associate products and is designed to suit each client’s individual needs. After a short chat to ascertain my skin type and any problems, I’m left for a few minutes to settle myself on a cosy heated bed.

Facial in Source treatment rooms, Thermae Bath Spa

The facial starts with a gentle cleanse and exfoliation with deliciously rose scented products. An anti-ageing repair mask is applied to improve the skin’s hydration, followed by a facial massage with more nourishing products to ease lines and tension. A head massage, inhalation of essential oils and an arm and hand massage complete this most soporific of treatments. I’m almost asleep by the time it finishes and appreciate the cup of herbal tea afterwards in the comfortable lounge area. I’m also given a few skincare tips for the future and a list of all the products used in the treatment. There is no hard sell to purchase any of them.

 

Before the highlight of my visit to Bath – ‘taking the waters’ – I first wander into the Wellness Suite expecting to find Alec. But it’s so incredibly steamy that I can’t see a thing so impossible to find him. I grope my way into one of the steam rooms and sit in the misty heat for ten minutes, so my skin can absorb what remains of the nourishing unguents from my treatment. The Wellness Suite is one of the largest I’ve seen in a spa, having two steam rooms, a large infra-red sauna, an invigorating ice chamber, experience showers and a starry relaxation room.

 

After a quick shower, I grab my robe and head up to the top floor for a dip in open-air rooftop pool – something I’ve wanted to do for years! The air feels cold and it’s breezy, but braving the elements before slipping into the gloriously warm water is a memorable moment. The water comes up to my neck, so I grab a float from the side of the pool then happily bob around in the buoyant warmth, savouring the evening views of the city.

Roof top thermal pool, Bath

I also want to experience the Minerva Bath during my spa session, so reluctantly leave the rooftop pool after a 30-minute soak and make my way downstairs. The larger indoor Minerva Bath may not have the wow factor of the roof top pool, but is a treat not to be missed. It also has a neck massage jet and whirlpools, plus a lazy river feature that gently propels you around in the thermal water. The air is warm and there are comfortable beds around the pool if you feel like having a nap.

Large MInerva Bath, thermae bath spa

By the time Alec and I catch up with each other, our spa session is almost at an end, with just enough time for a tasty  light supper in the Springs Café Restaurant. Before leaving the spa, we have a brief look at the 18th century Cross Bath, located in a separate building across the road from the New Royal Bath. This small open-air pool has its own changing facilities and is fed by its own supply of thermal water from the Cross Spring. Sessions in the Cross Bath last for 90 minutes and the pool can also be booked for exclusive use by small parties of up to 10 people with food and wine arranged if required.

Cross Bath by candlelight, Bath

Driving home, I’m already planning another trip to Thermae Bath Spa. Maybe next time I’ll try a signature treatment in the Hot Bath – a smaller thermal bath used for watsu (water massage). The Vichy shower rituals also sound amazing – or a spa session in the historic Cross Bath. With so many spa options AND the beautiful city of Bath to explore, our next visit will definitely be longer than our first.

Watsu at thermae Bath spa  Vichy Shower at thermae bath spa

 

 

 

 

 


 

Thermae Bath Spa

Hetling Pump Room, Hot Bath Street, Bath, BA1 1SJ

Tel: 01225 33 1234

2-hour spa sessions weekdays from £36 (additional hours £10) £40 on weekends

3-hour Twilight Spa Package (Mon-Fri only) £48 per person or £90 for two people

50-mins Tailor-Made-Facial £69

1 ½ hour Cross Bath session £18 weekdays, £20 weekends.

For other packages and treatment prices visit the website www.thermaebathspa.com

No children under 16 permitted in the New Royal Bath

Children of 12+ accompanied by an adult on a 1:1 ratio in the Cross Bath

 

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