Jane Austen’s Bath Returns in a New Incarnation
by Lillian Africano
Nineteenth century Bath was about living well and the gentry lived very well indeed.
As the site of Britain’s only natural thermal springs, Bath has been a spa center for more than 200 years, but for those of us who read Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, it was Jane Austen who brought the place to life.
She was born in 1775, to George and Cassandra Austen. Her father was a prosperous rector, and the family lived in relative comfort at The Rectory at Steventon in Hampshire. I n 1805, Jane, her parents and her sister, Cassandra, were living at 27 Green Park Buildings in Bath and it was then that she began soaking up the atmosphere of the bustling city that would later feature so prominently in her books. After growing up in quiet rural isolation, Jane no doubt had mixed impressions of Bath, a city still under construction. In Persuasion, she described it as “vapour, shadow, smoke and confusion.”
But it was her observations of the gentry who frequented Bath, of the families who brought their marriageable daughters here to search for suitable husbands, that infuse her stories with energy and authenticity. In fact, Jane and her sister, both spinsters in their twenties, belonged to this assembly of hopefuls. It was here that Jane perhaps hoped to meet the man she would marry and though she did have opportunities, she was, in the end, a woman disappointed in love. Yet in the stories she set in Bath, she gave her characters a place where love would bloom: a shady, tree-lined walk (Jane herself as a great walker) where Anne Elliot met Captain Wentworth; the glittering balls where young Catherine Moreland made her debut.
Today, visitors to Bath can take those very walks, and see the very places where Austen’s characters danced and dreamed. An hour and a half from London, Bath is a beautifully preserved Georgian town, a spa town, as it was in Austen’s day. The streets, crescents and gardens that Austen saw are much as they were in her day. Today’s visitors enjoy many of the same activities that Austen and her contemporaries enjoyed: concerts in the Assembly Room (like the one attended by Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth); gossiping and taking the sulphurous waters at the Pump Room (as Austen’s uncle did to relieve his gout); shopping in still fashionable Milsom Street (as experienced by Isabella Thorpe who enthused to her friend, Catherine Moreland, about seeing the prettiest hat there).
The theatre was an important attraction in the early nineteenth century. The one attended by Catherine Moreland was in Orchard Street, but in 1805 a new theatre, now known as the Theatre Royal, was built in Sawclose. It was here that Charles Musgrove probably reserved a box to accommodate his party of nine, which included Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth.
Austen and her family no doubt stopped at Sally Lunn’s for the traditional Bath Buns. Though Sally Lunn’s is the oldest house in Bath, dating back to the 15th century, Sally herself came to Bath in 1680 and began baking her now-famous buns, filled with currants and sugar. Visitors today enjoy them as much as she did.
Nineteenth century Bath was about living well and the gentry lived very well indeed. The artist Thomas Gainesborough (who lived in Bath before Austen’s time) got rich painting portraits of the very rich at 100 pounds each, a staggering sum in those days. Tea was the status drink of the day a pound cost hundreds of pounds and was drunk to show affluence. (Anyone could drink alcohol, after all, even the poor.)
The truly wealthy were carried around town in their own sedan chairs; in front their homes would be a winch for hoisting the family’s chair. Those less wealthy hired a chair, as needed.
Like so many grand cities, Bath prospered, then declined over time and was badly damaged during World War II. But in August of this year, the thermal springs were once again reopened at the Thermae Bath Spa, designed by architect Nicholas Grimshaw.
Though the spa is absolutely state-of-the-art, the city the only English city designated a World Heritage Site–retains much of the charm it had in Austen’s day but without the features that modern visitors would not enjoy.
Austen’s Bath appears quite lovely in the films made of her books, though there was much that was decidedly unappealing. The Age of Elegance was also the age of chamber pots and open sewers (hence the high pavements). Ladies used toxic lead-based makeup to cover smallpox scars and mouse skins for eyebrows. The elaborate hairstyles were dressed with grease to keep them intact and covered with net to keep off bugs and vermin; hair was often not redone for months.
As for the baths, considering that people (even the best people) didn’t bathe very often, one can only imagine how filthy they were by day’s end. However, as they were cleaned out once a day (which may have helped reduce the transmission of nasty skin diseases), smart spa-goers went to the baths in the morning, as early as 5 or 6 am; ladies floated on the water with trays of smelling salts, which may have helped mask the odor of less-than- clean bodies.
Happily, spa-goers today can savor the charm of Bath in comfort, without the less attractive aspects of 19th century life.
Visit Jane Austen’s Bath
Austen’s city still remembers her; at the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street visitors can learn all about Bath in her day and the importance of Bath in her life and work. In September, the annual Jane Austen Festival celebrates the beloved author with nine days of exhibitions, performances and literary events.
The Roman Baths are built around the remains of Roman bathhouses circa 4th century; the museum includes temple courtyards, heating tiles and plunge pools.
The Museum of Costume and Assembly Rooms exhibits the fashions of Austen’s day (through January).
Putney Bridge in Bath resembles the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and is one of the UK’s most photographed sites.
Theater Royal Bath was built in 1805 (rebuilt in 1863,) would have been new when Austen was in Bath; it’s now a venue for plays, operas and dance programs.
by Joan Scobey
A pedestrian street connects the new Thermae Bath Spa with the ancient Roman one, which includes the Great Bath, the Sacred Spring, the Museum, and the classically elegant Pump Room, now a restaurant.
The elegant Georgian city that Jane Austen made famous isn’t called Bath for nothing. The health-giving waters of its three hot springs were so well known that for centuries pilgrims journeyed to this city 116 miles west of London to bathe in the ancient hot bubbling waters of its Roman Bath. At least they did until 1978, when the Great Bath was closed for public bathing. Spa culture was taken so seriously here that the city’s railroad station is called, not Bath, but Bath Spa.
In August, a new state-of-the-art facility called Thermae Bath Spa opened just 350 feet from the original Roman baths, and it takes up the slack for spa lovers. The same waters that bubbled in the Roman Baths now irrigate the four baths of the new spa complex, so once again you can do as the Romans did: soak year-round in hot mineral-rich spring waters that began as rain thousands of years ago, before traveling through carboniferous limestone bedrock and rising in the hot springs of Bath.
Thermae Bath Spa encompasses the restoration of five historic 18th century buildings and the construction of a stunning new glass and stone building structure by internationally acclaimed architects Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners. Located in the city’s old spa quarter, which was built in the 18th century over earlier buildings, the complex looks surprisingly at home among its Roman, Gothic, medieval, and Georgian neighbors in the heart of this World Heritage City. In fact, a pedestrian street connects the new Thermae Bath Spa with the ancient Roman one, which includes the Great Bath, the Sacred Spring, the Museum, and the classically elegant Pump Room, now a restaurant.
Originally funded by a 7.78 million grant from the Millennium Lottery Commission, the new complex was plagued by all kinds of construction problems, and finally opened years late and millions of pounds over cost. But it’s here now, and from the looks of crowds lined up with their swim suits in hand, most welcome.
Its centerpiece is the New Royal Bath, a large cube of Bath limestone enclosed by a glass structure, with an open-air rooftop pool surrounded by a waist-high glass wall and fed by the same ancient waters. Here, with many other bathers its opening week, I levitated on bubbling air seats and relaxed in the soothing waters, periodically agitated by massage jets in the bottom of the pool, gazing at the nearby improbable Gothic tower of the 16th century Abbey Church, and the green hills beyond.
Next I moved indoors to the ground level Minerva Pool, a large free form area with four stately columns rising from its pulsing waters. The relatively light current offered a fair amount of resistance to reach the separate circular section at one end and its more powerful whirlpool jets. Incidentally, the hot thermal springs are cooled down to body temperature in both pools.
Between the two pools are several floors with massage suites, four circular glass pod steam rooms infused with essential oils of mountain pine, eucalyptus mint, jasmine, or lavender plus waterfall showers and footbaths, a solarium, an exercise space and a restaurant.
Despite its name, the New Royal Bath is a populist facility for large numbers of people. The changing cubicles and lockers are small. You must bring your own bathing suits, which cannot be rented, and perhaps towels, slippers and robe, which can be. However, they are provided with all spa treatments.
As I overheard a fellow bather say, If the Romans and Centurions were to build a spa in the 21st century with contemporary materials, this is exactly what they would build.
A glass-covered corridor leads from the ultra-modern New Royal Bath to the restored 18th century Hot Bath, its eight treatment rooms and its own serene, original natural thermal pool. This is used for hydrotherapy treatments, such as Watsu massage while afloat in the thermal pool; Alpine hay bath; a thermal mineral bath wrapped in a thermal water-soaked fleece, and Vichy Showers combined with various wraps. Only guests having treatments can enter the Hot Bath.
I had the Pantai Luar, an ancient Eastern Asian massage technique using warm oils, limes, and coconut wrapped tightly into a heated fabric ball that the therapist gently strokes over your body as you lie on a heated surface. It’s aromatic, and very soothing.
The restored Cross Bath is a separate exquisite 18th century stone building designed only for a special serene bathing experience in the lovely skylighted thermal pool. A glass bubble at the edge of the pool captures the emerging hot spring that rises from the limestone rock below, whose healing waters, it is said, cured the infertile Queen Mary who then gave her husband, James II, a son and heir. The building is named for the cross that Mary gave the city after getting pregnant; a remnant of it is in the Spa Visitors Centre. Adding to the mystique, the Cross Spring is recognized as an official Sacred Site in honor of the ancient Celts who worshipped their goddess Sul at this place.
One of the five restored Georgian buildings is the Hetling Pump Room, now used as a Spa Visitors Centre. Here you ll learn that the healing power of Britain’s only natural thermal spa, which delivers about 330,000 gallons of 115-degree Fahrenheit water every day, was first discovered by the Celtic Prince Bladud in 863 BC. Exiled from his kingdom as a leper and turned swineherd, according to legend he noticed that when his pigs wallowed in the hot muddy springs, their warts disappeared, so he covered himself with hot mud and emerged free of leprosy. As King, he built a city on the site and called it Caer Badon, City of Baths. Eight hundred years later the Romans erected their sacred baths at the same spot.
The following spa menu will give you an idea of the wide variety of treatments. (At press time, the pound was US$1.85.)
-Watsu, 50 minutes, £55
-Thermal Mineral Bath 30 minutes, £38
-Alpine Hay Bath 30 minutes, £38
-Vichy Hydro massage, 30 minutes, £36
-Vichy with body wraps of Moor Mud, Desert Earth, Green Coffee, or Thalasso Seaweed, all 50 minutes, £48
-Vichy plus Moroccan Cocoon with Rasoul 50 minutes, £48
-Hot stone therapy, 45 minutes, £38, 80 minutes, £78, 105 minutes, £88
-Traditional full body massage, 50 minutes, £45, Couples massage, 50 minutes, £85 per couple
-Aroma massage, 50 minutes, £48, Aroma Couples massage, 50 minutes, £95 per couple
-Sports massage, 50 minutes, £48, 80 minutes, £65
-Sports Acupressure therapy, 50 minutes, £55, 80 minutes, £75
-Reflexology, 50 minutes, £45
-Shiatsu, 50 minutes, 48, 80 minutes, £70
-Indian Head massage, 30 minutes, £35
-Thai massage, 50 minutes, 48, 80 minutes, £70
-Reiki, 50 minutes, £45
-Watsu, 50 minutes, £55
-Pantai Luar, 50 minutes, £55
-Aromatic Moor Mud, 50 minutes, £45
-Aromatherapy Cocoon, 50 minutes, £45
-Desert Heat, 50 minutes, £55
-Green Coffee, 50 minutes, £55
-Thalasso Seaweed, 50 minutes, £55
-Moroccan Cocoon with Rasoul, 50 minutes, £55
-Dry Flotation takes place on a warmed cushion of water, without direct contact with the water.
-Classic Peat Bath, 30 minutes, £38
-Cleopatra Bath, combining goat’s milk and various oils, 30 minutes, £38
-Lavender Blossom Bath 30 minutes, £38
-Chardonnay Bath, with grape seed oil and chardonnay draff, 30 minutes, £38
-Thermal Mineral Bath, 30 minutes, £38
-Alpine Hay Bath 30 minutes, £38
-Yoga & Pilates, 50 minutes, £55
A variety of facials, body care treatments, and spa packages complete Thermae’s offerings.
Thermae Bath Spa is open daily 9.00 am to 10 pm, and the cost, excluding treatments, is 19 for a two-hour spa session, 29 for a 4-hour spa session, and 45 for all day at the New Royal and Hot Baths. Cross Bath is open 9 am to 9 pm and costs 12 for a 1 -hour session. Treatment time is in addition to the spa sessions. For information, call 011-44-1225 33 5678, for reservations 011-44-1225 33 1234, or log on to www.thermaebathspa.com.