I think he’s the sort of bloke you could go for a pint with,” muses Bill Bryson from the audio guide. He’s describing a jolly-looking fellow with a thick mane, bushy eyebrows, flowing beard and piercing eyes that follow you around the room. A fellow whose face happens to be carved into stone.
This fantastically preserved Gorgon’s head, uncovered in 1790, is part of a detailed carving that would have made up part of the temple pediment of the Roman site of Aquae Sulis. It’s not certain exactly who he represents, as some other pieces are missing, but from the dark chamber that is his current home, his mysterious yet friendly demeanour continues to fascinate us. “A bit like the Mona Lisa,” offers Bill.
This is just one of the archaeological gems sitting right at the centre of modern day Bath, named after the hot springs at this site.
The site is divided into two main sections – the remains of the temple and the Baths themselves. But it’s the spring, considered home of the goddess Minerva Sulis by the Romans and local tribespeople, that this site revolves around. Rainwater that fell on the Mendip Hills 10,000 years ago now bubbles up to the surface here at the rate of 1,170,000 litres per day, conveniently heated to 46°C.
The Romans, unlike the Celts before them, realised how they could use this phenomenon to their advantage. From the spring, the hot water was directed through lead pipes still there today, straight into the centrepiece of the bathing site – the Great Bath. An impressive pool of glowing green water, flanked by stone steps and surrounded by grand pillars, it doesn’t take much effort to imagine the noise and hubbub of Roman society in and around the water.
You can see one of the best views of the complex from the raised balcony of the Terrace, which takes in the Great Bath, Victorian statues, and, just beyond the site, the medieval city abbey – 2,000 years of history all in one view.
But much of the complex remains invisible, sprawling away from its centrepiece, and much of it unreachable, buried below Grade-II listed buildings. As any of the friendly guides on-site will tell you as you walk through the dark, damp rooms below modern street level, the Roman spa experience didn’t begin in the Great Bath but in one of many antechambers. Bathers disrobed and were rubbed down with olive oil, which was scraped off by an unlucky slave, and then went through a series of pressurised baths, warm pools and a final cold plunge.
But no Roman visit would have been complete without casting your wishes to the goddess at the sacred spring – eerie even in our day and age. Curses were scribed on metal sheets (they had to sink, as a floating curse was considered the worst luck) and eloquently rage against unruly family or thieves: “May he who took my best cooking pot spill his own blood in it”.
These fascinating finds are just a few of the artefacts displayed throughout the site that, from belt buckles to gravestones, tell the story of Roman life in intimate detail, spilling as much light on their day-to-day existence as the gilded bronze head of Minerva’s statue, which would have stood in the temple, or the Gorgon’s head. You come away feeling as if you could have gone for a drink with any of them.
HOW TO GET THERE
Exit the M4 at junction 18 and take the A46, then the A4, towards Bath. By rail, Bath Spa has regular links
to most major stations, including London, Bristol and Cardiff, and is a 10-minute walk from the Baths and other attractions.
Find out more
The Roman Baths
Stall Street, Bath
Bath Tourist Information
Abbey Churchyard, Bath BA1 1LY
4 North Parade Passage, Bath BA1 1NX
Home of the original Bath bun, this quaint tearoom is a stone’s throw from the Baths.
The Hole In The Wall
16 George Street, Bath
Two Georgian cellars are now home to one cosy restaurant with a huge Bath stone fireplace, offering local food.
Corston Fields Farm
Corston, Bath BA2 9EZ
Family-run farmhouse a few miles out of the city. A great spot from which to explore the surrounding Somerset villages and countryside.
Jane Austen Centre
40 Gay Street, Queen Square, Bath BA1 2NT
It’s bonnets and top hats at the ready at this museum celebrating the life of Bath’s literary giant. Regular events and walking tours divulge the inspiration behind some of her classic novels.