Bath, England, is famous for its ancient hot springs that were believed to have been “created by the gods.”
Care to take a bath in Bath?
That’s not a strange question, actually. Since ancient times, residents and visitors in Bath, England, have been taking a dip in its restorative (and once-believed sacred) waters.
Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of those Roman baths, and also because of its honey-colored classic Georgian architecture – some of which is quite mysterious.
The Roman Baths
The Roman Baths are one of the best-preserved ancient religious spas in the world.
Today it’s a museum, carefully constructed over, around and within the ancient bath complex and temple. Originally the site was simply a natural hot spring, and those warm waters still bubble up and fill the baths today. But ancient peoples believed these waters to be magical, and it became a place to worship the gods – one particular goddess, in fact, named Sulis Minerva. You can see images of her, as well as remnants of her temple, today at the museum.
You can also see what the Victorians did to spruce the place up a bit after it was re-discovered centuries later. It’s amazing to see the rough stone of the ancient Roman bath complex – which historians believe was built around A.D. 70. – with the more refined and elegant Victorian architecture built directly on top of it.
It is also incredible to get to walk through and touch all this history in one place. Just don’t jump into the steaming pools, as tempting as it may be. Those are closed to the public.
But you can see hundreds of artifacts discovered within the baths, including letters to Sulis Minerva. The letters were written to the goddess and then dropped into the waters, which the ancient Romans believed were a sort of portal of communication with the gods. The subjects of the letters ranged from praising Sulis Minerva, to asking for money, to asking for punishment of another Roman. Kind of an interesting Dear Santa list, right?
Bath’s mysterious architecture
After the Roman Baths, take a tour of Bath’s gorgeous Georgian architecture. You’ll notice right away that everything is homogeneous: the style, the color of the stone, the symmetry of the streets and building heights. All that is intentional. Just like Paris, Bath is a planned city, and what a beauty it is.
There are three major architectural landmarks in Bath, either designed by or inspired by the same architect: John Wood the Elder (1704 – 1754). He was a Freemason, with some pretty peculiar inspirations for his works.
The first landmark is the Circus, which is basically a really fancy roundabout surrounded by lovely townhouses. There are three main theories about its design. One: When viewed from above, combined with the nearby Queen Square and adjoining street, it forms the shape of a key, an important Masonic symbol. Two: When combined with the nearby Royal Crescent, also viewed from above, the two symbolize the sun and the moon. And three (my favorite): The size and shape are a tribute to Stonehenge, because John Wood the Elder strongly believed that the Druids lived and worshiped here in Bath centuries ago.
Even above the doorways of the townhouses, there are mysterious symbols of serpents, books, flowers and tools. And there’s one more mysterious element to this Stonehenge-like bit of architecture: If you stand in the exact center, you get some interesting acoustics: a sort of part-echo, part-whisper that can be heard clearly. Who knew a traffic circle could be so fascinating?
Next is the nearby Queen Square, with an obelisk in the center. Also designed by John Wood the Elder, it marked the beginning of the new town. It also is surrounded by elegant townhouses built with that same honey-colored limestone. Jane Austen famously stayed in one of those townhouses, and the square was later dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II.
The last is the most recognizable Bath landmark: the Royal Crescent, designed by John Wood the Younger. It has to be seen in person for its design and scale to be truly appreciated. At 500 feet long, it bends and forms a perfect half-moon, or crescent, shape. It also is made up of elegant Georgian townhouses. And these lucky residents get their own green space too: The Crescent forever cradles the gorgeous Victoria Park. It was all designed this way so that the upper class could have a bit of the countryside in the big city. Lucky chaps.
More Bath sights
There’s still much more to see and do in Bath. Don’t miss: Bath Abbey, where the first King of England was crowned; Pulteney Bridge, modeled after Florence’s Ponte Vecchio; and the Jane Austen Centre (snap a photo with its cheerful greeter, Martin Salter, known as “the most photographed man in England”). Finally, take a much-deserved break at the Coeur de Lion, touted as the smallest pub in Bath. Just be prepared to get snuggly as you sip your ale with the Bathonians there. Maybe they can decode all the mysterious symbols of their beautiful city.
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