The Water is Just Fine: The Roman Baths and The Grand Tour

Laini Farrare, WPAMC ’24

Figure 1: The Roman Baths. Photo by author.

Bath, England is well known for its illustrious architecture (featuring native Bath stone), its famous streetscape, and of course the Roman Baths. The Baths, also known as Aquae Sulis, are an archeological marvel, consist of traditional Roman bathing pools sourced from a natural hot spring. The Baths are also remnants of a temple dedicated to the Roman goddess, Minerva. Upon my visit to the site, for British Design History, the interpretation mainly focused on the Roman time period, but also discussed the 18th century and its influential Georgian visitors. The end of the eighteenth century saw the influential British gentry fascinated by sites and motifs of antiquity. This fascination gave birth to the “Grand Tour” or young men exploring sites connected to antiquity, which breathed new life into the Roman Baths once more.

In addition to the Roman Baths, the city is also admired for its Georgian architecture such as the Royal Crescent and the Circus. The Roman Baths did not stop with the demise of the Roman Empire but found new visitors in the form of the British gentry. Wealthy families would often holiday in Bath, living in new planned neighborhoods of Georgian and Palladian architecture, and visit the Baths for rejuvenation and the promise of health benefits. The British Gentry utilized the Roman Baths as physical and mental therapy, but also as a connection to the Roman past. In the way that the traditional Grand Tour to continental European sites inspired interest in classical architecture and decorative arts, the pilgrimage to Bath also exposed visitors to classicism in the streetscape, architecture, and character of the town.

Figure 2: Royal Crescent, Bath England on a cloudy January morning. Photo by the author.

Today, Bath’s multicultural history is like layers throughout the city. The Roman Baths sit below the present street-level, while the Georgian and Palladian architecture sits above. The legacy of the Roman Baths continues to marvel the public, as many tourists who visit Bath can still partake in the historic tradition of thermal bathing. Thermae Bath Spa, a contemporary thermal spa that has historic pools that date to the Roman period, draws visitors to the city. The spa represents a continuation of the notion of antiquity and pilgrimage in the era of self care. The many layers that encompass Bath drive tourism and provide a look into the past. If you visit Bath, England be sure to bathe and get your dose of  antiquity. 

One response to “The Water is Just Fine: The Roman Baths and The Grand Tour”

  1. Marin Bako says:

    I was charmed by the mental image of travelers from decades or centuries past taking so much joy in exploring historical sites and learning about other cultures during their trips to Bath, just as tourists still do today. It feels like a thread that connects people through time. This post made me want to take a spa day, though my surroundings would no doubt be nowhere near as picturesque as the architecture in and around the pools of Bath!

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