The Roman Baths is the jewel in the crown of the city of Bath. Built on geothermal underground springs, the baths are filled with water that comes out of the ground at 46°C.
The Celts were the first people to build shrine at the site, which they dedicated to the goddess Sulis. Then when the Romans invaded Britain in the first century AD under the Emperor Claudius, they renamed the settlement Aquae Sulis, identifying Sulis with the Roman goddess Minerva, and built their own temple and baths complex at the springs.
Over the past two millennia, the baths and temple have undergone various adaptations and rebuilds, but one thing remained: belief in the healing properties of the water.
These days, however, bathing in the water at the Roman Baths isn’t allowed, partly because the water still flows through the original Roman-era lead pipes, and partly due to disease-carrying amoeba being found in the water in the 1970s. Back in the early 2000s, new baths were built using water from newer boreholes, allowing visitors to once again enjoy the waters.
The Roman Baths museum
Having grown up in Bath, I’ve visited the Roman Baths several times. In recent years it’s undergone massive redevelopment and many parts of the museum are unrecognisable from what I saw as a child.
I’d decided to visit again, as my eldest daughter is well into her history and is due to do Roman history next year at school. So, during our annual summer-holiday visit to see their Granny and Grandpa, I took my girls to the Baths.
Our trip was one of ups and downs.
There’s a wonderful assortment of things to see, from the Baths and temple ruins themselves to statues, mosaics and everyday possessions of ancient bathers, such as shoes and jewellery.
Technology has been used beautifully to enhance the ruins. In some areas, TV screens show you a reconstruction of what you’re looking at, to give you a sense of place and perspective. The famous stone gorgon’s head is now set up on a wall with the missing parts projected back in. The room has a large seating area so visitors can sit and watch the changing projection come and go on the carvings.
(As an interesting side note, the identification of the carved head as the Gorgon has been contested, as the Gorgon was female. Oceanus, a bearded man representing the river that surrounded the world, has been suggested, which would make sense, given his watery association. My knowledge of Roman mythology isn’t strong enough to speculate, but I think he’s a magnificent carving.)
Visitors can take an audio guide around with them; the guides are available in several languages, opening the Baths up to people from many different countries.
The day we were there the museum had an activity room for children where they could make their own Roman standards (miniature versions, of course. I’m not sure I’d have agreed to the children carrying full-size Roman standards around all day …). The children loved this part, and the staff on duty were just wonderfully helpful and chatty.
The Baths are a street photographer’s paradise. There’s so many people around, busy enjoying the museum and listening to their audio tours or taking photos themselves. Nobody worries about the camera around your neck.
Bath is not a big city and everybody that visits wants to go to the Roman Baths. Tourists also want to see the Circus, the Royal Crescent and other bits of Georgian architecture. But Bath is not rich in museums and the Roman Baths is where it’s at; everybody goes there. A visit during the summer holidays was, perhaps, not the best idea, given we had two five-year-olds and an eight-year-old. It was absolutely packed.
Some parts of the museum we just had to skip because the children were unable to see anything on display and the crowds became overwhelming.
The whole experience has been redesigned in recent years, so visitors are moved in pretty much one long line from the entrance to the exit. The effective movement of large crowds is, I assume, the main reason for this, but it did make me feel like we were being treated like herded cattle.
Many people with audio guides were so busy listening they had a complete lack of awareness of themselves and others around them. Some were almost zombie-like. And this was to a much greater degree than I’ve experienced in museums where people weren’t distracted by audio guides.
I tried to walk against the tide of visitors to find my dad. Only about 20 feet back the way I’d already been. But I couldn’t. Just don’t bother trying.
Getting in. We had to queue outside. It was like waiting to get into a busy nightclub. There were large, suited bouncer-like doormen at the entrance. We had to queue along purple ropes, which the doormen would open from time-to-time to let a small number of people in. (Give the doormen their due, though – they were ever so friendly and helpful.)
The cost. My dad had a Discovery card, which meant that he could get himself and my elder daughter in for free. Those under six go in for free, so the two younger ones didn’t pay. I was the only one who had to pay. It cost £17.00 to get me in.
To be honest, if I’d had to pay full price for a family of four – it would’ve cost us over £40 for three of us (£17.00 per adult, £9.80 per child aged 6–16) or over £50 had my five-year-old been six – I’d have been asking for our money back, considering how little we actually managed to see due to the crowds.
By the time we’d finished, the children were so exhausted and hungry, we had to forego a stop at the Pump Rooms and go straight home for lunch.
Are the Roman Baths worth visiting?
I’d say the Roman Baths are worth a visit; the museum is interesting and beautiful, and the baths themselves are an unusual piece of heritage; they’re not ten-a-penny.
However, I’d recommend timing your visit carefully. Go out of season, if you can, or early in the morning. The museum puts on torchlit evening events in the summer, too, which sound lovely.
Also consider who’s in your group. If I’d been by myself, I would have had a much easier time. Having young children made it tricky during such busy hours. If I’d been trying to negotiate a pushchair or wheelchair through the museum, I’d probably have been in tears within the first ten minutes.
I think sixteen years in Liverpool has spoiled me, museum-wise. We have several large, well-designed museums and galleries in the city, such as the World Museum, the Walker Art Gallery, the Lady Lever Art Gallery and the Museum of Liverpool. Museum visitors are spread out amongst them and, importantly, they’re all free to enter.
As I said above, Bath is not well-equipped when it comes to larger museums. It has a few small, specialist museums (such as the Fashion Museum, the Herschel Museum of Astronomy and the Jane Austen Centre) and art galleries (such as the Victoria Art Gallery and the Holburne Museum). But the Roman Baths are the major attraction. It seems they’ve almost become a victim of their own success and that makes me a feel a bit happy-sad.