Bath is an English city that wasn’t necessarily on my radar when making the journey across the Atlantic. However, its title as a World Heritage site with both religious and secular historical significance made me excited to visit following our class trip to Stonehenge.
Since one of the classes I’m taking at Oxford is religious art and architecture, we attended a class lecture to the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Paul. Afterwards, we were released to explore the city on our own before paying a visit to the Roman Baths, which are the city’s namesake.
So let’s dive in!
The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Paul
Upon our arrival, our class made its way down Stall Street and into Bath’s city center.
The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Paul was built all the way back in the 7th century- talk about old! As it’s name would imply, this church would have been used by Benedictine nuns.
As far as its exterior goes, it is a fairly standard gothic church, especially for England. However, one feature that’s special to the Bath Abbey is the continuous sculpture of angels scaling two ladders up the western/front side of the church. The ladders are meant to represent Jacob’s ladder, as described in the bible, and is based on a dream that Bishop King had in the year 1500, wherein angels were climbing up and down two ladders.
Taking in the sculpture-covered western/front end of the Bath Abbey (featuring the entrance to the Roman Baths on the right)
Check out the angels on Jacob’s ladders on both sides!
Like the exterior, there is not much to say about the interior of the Bath Abbey. It is tall but narrow, with lofty ceilings and a narrow knave. The showstopping feature here is the multitude of gorgeous fan vaults.
Vaults are basically a way to add architectural style to arches in a building, and these fan vaults are named so because they start from the pillars that support the arches and fan out, overlapping with each other in lacy, delicate patterns. This style adds the illusion even more height, and makes what is otherwise an ordinary church seem ethereal.
Looking up at the fan vaults inside Bath Abbey, a gorgeous way to keep the ceiling from caving in!
Exploring Central Bath
After leaving the Baath Abbey, we had about an hour to explore Bath. Since that time frame needed to include lunch, we stayed around the main square. We ended up at a cozy pub where I tried “jacket potatoes” (basically the UK name and version for a baked potato) for the first time- basically a potato in a ceramic bowl baked and melted together with cheese and ham. As you’d expect, it’s deeeeelicious.
Afterwards, we just walked around and took in the sights.
Bath is lovely and also a bit spread out, we tried to make it to the river and the parks that surround it, but couldn’t find it.
However, we did get to enjoy all of the public art that seemed to be everywhere in the street, whether that takes the form of a person dressed up as a newspaper, or a skeleton riding a bicycle.
The Roman Baths
Finally, it was time to experience Bath’s main attraction- its namesake Roman Baths.
Exploring the roman baths is an interesting experience for a couple of reasons. For one, it weaves in and out of the baths themselves and the museum that was built around it. It’s also a huge structure and spans multiple floors, both above ground and below. Going through, I never knew what I was going to see or what was going to be in the next room. Disorienting, but kind of exciting!
Roman bathhouses were popular among the Romans living in Britain during the turn of the millenia. This particular bath house, or “thermae”, served as a social meeting area where people would meet for a soak in the waters that supposedly have healing properties. There was also a temple to the Roman gods and goddesses built on site. The bath water was and is supplied from an underground spring, and you can see water flowing from the spring itself from the underground paths and viewing areas. It’s wild! You can see the underground stream running under your feet through the glass floor near the lobby area.
Not a great pic, but check out the spring underfoot!
The main feature of the roman baths is the one, main pool. It’s outdoors, and surrounding by a porch and an additional floor that would give bathers a sense of privacy. On the second floor viewing area, life-sized roman statues stand around the edge of the balcony. I would find their overhead presence kind of creepy, but that’s just me. Architecturally, the baths are very roman and very pretty stone structure. Clearly, the creme de la creme of society would have gathered here.
Checking out the main bath from above, notice the looming sculptures and Bath Abbey?
After getting to see the baths from the upper and lower floors, you get to the main museum area. Even though the roman baths seem fairly well preserved, there is a lot of sculpture that has been broken, lost, and is now attempting to be pieced back together. As mentioned before, many of these sculptures depict roman gods and goddesses, and its a miracle that they’ve been preserved due to their age. It makes an art historian’s job even more interesting with regards to trying to figure out what the figures represent.
Here is a sculpted relief of a “gorgon” head, art historians are baffled because gorgons are usually female. One alternative theory is that this is a sun god.
From there, you get to see more of the inner workings of the baths, such as the furnace room where ceramic pillars were used to warm the water. Afterwards, the underground area takes you through some of the smaller baths and fountains, before finally bringing you to the end, where we were allowed to drink some of the spring water for its rumored healing properties due to its mineral content.
These ceramic pillars were used to transfer heat to the upper floor, where the water would be warmed
One of the sources for the underground spring
How did it taste? A little bit of sulfur, a little bit of copper. But it didn’t kill me or make me sick, so I’d call it a success.
Bath was great! While we stayed towards Stall street and the city center the whole time, there was plenty to do and see in the couple of hours that we had. The baths make it all worth it, such fascinating site unlike any place I’ve visited before, and the museum is super thorough and engaging. I always enjoy on-site museums that make the effort to show you how the site worked, as opposed to just briefly explaining what it is. The Roman Baths museum did just that, making my visit extra memorable.
Would highly recommend drinking the spring water.