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Roman Haven: An Escape to Bath Spa

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It takes just one and a half hours to get to one of England's top spots for history, wellness and culture, making it the perfect weekend getaway, Elizabeth Finney discovers

As steam billows across the surface of the water, rays of sunshine highlight the rooftops of the city. From the seats in the Thermae Bath Spa rooftop pool, the Bath Abbey is clearly visible through the mist, bathed in golden light with the tail end of the Cotswolds’ rolling green hills visible in the distance. It’s 9am on the dot, and I’ve got the place to myself.

The City of Bath is the ultimate spa destination – beneath its cobbled streets bubble the famous hot springs, discovered by Prince Bladud in approximately 863BC. These healing waters – enriched with more than 42 different minerals – fell as rainwater around 10,000 years ago, sank to a depth of around 2km where it is heated by scorching rocks before shooting back to the surface in one of Bath’s three hot springs, situated at the heart of the city. For centuries, these springs have been utilised for both leisure and medicine by the Celts, Romans, Saxons and Georgians.

Elizabeth Finney
Beyond London, Travel
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Pictured above L-R: Ice chamber, Roman steam room, infrared sauna, Georgian steam room, all courtesy of Thermea Bath Spa

At Thermae Bath Spa, head to the Cross Bath to see the natural thermal waters bubble up from the spring itself, in the form of a specially commissioned fountain nestled in the crescent of the moon-shaped pool. While this tucked-away space offers a level of exclusivity, the star of the show has to be the wellness suite in the main building. I mosey between the Roman steam room (complete with Minerva mosaic and botanical-scented steam), Infrared sauna, experience showers, celestial relaxation room (the star-pricked walls and ceiling a nod to the Bath-based astronomer William Herschel), the ice chamber and the Georgian steam room (scented with rose) all afternoon and head upstairs for my treatments feeling totally relaxed. Steam rooms give the immune system a little boost, loosen up the muscles and detoxify the skin, while heat stress from sauna use can make the body more resilient to aging and improves the growth of muscle and new brain cells – the perfect pick-me-up before I’m treated to a Top-To-Toe treatment, using the most delicious Aromatherapy Associates products. My tired limbs are gently massaged and I nearly fall asleep during finale, an intricate facial that leaves my skin buffed and glowing.

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Pictured abouve L-R: Aromatherapy Associates, Cross Bath, courtesy of Thermae Bath Spa.

After a day at Thermae, it’s lucky I only have to drift around the corner to The Gainsborough Hotel. Steeped in history and bedecked with five stars, this luxurious Grade II listed bolthole is extremely special. It’s rooms and suites boast lofty ceilings and vast windows that allow the pale gold winter sun to highlight the Georgian-style décor.

At the heart of the carefully designed building lies the Spa Village Bath, which is fed by the natural thermal, mineral-rich waters that has drawn visitors for millennia. A vast natural bath reflects the blue skies through the conservatory roof, surrounded by a labyrinth of stone rooms. The curated Bath House Circuit guides me from the smaller 40°C thermal bath, to the cold shower, the infrared sauna (there is a traditional one too) and the ice alcove, from which I fled to the steam room – stopping briefly to gorge on the famous Georgian spiced hot chocolate, which churns away atop a stone refreshments area tantalisingly. After testing out the various massage fountains on my knotted muscles, I head to one of the eleven treatment rooms to allow a professional to disentangle them properly. I opt for a classic Swedish massage during which I can almost hear my limbs creaking as my muscles are kneaded and unravelled, all while breathing in the scent of the essential oils – relaxing lavender, rosemary and sweet Neroli.

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Pictured above L-R: Spa Village treatment room, central pool and Aroma Bar, all courtesy of The Gainsborough Bath Spa.

Acting as an idyllic home to keep returning to between stints out exploring the many marvellous offerings of Bath, The Gainsborough Bath Spa perfectly combines modest elegance with a vibrant atmosphere, catering to every whim.

I’m surprised to discover that Bath is as much a foodie destination as a historic or spa one. According to many residents, it is imperative that I try the renowned Sally Lunn bun, so I pottered down the cobbled streets in search of the historic eating house. It’s one of the oldest in Bath, the year 1482 has been ascribed to it, which most likely refers to some renovations made at the time. Sitting on the third floor of the charming and wonky restaurant, I opt for homemade vegetable soup with a Sally Lunn bun steeped with cream cheese and smoked salmon. More than 200 years of positive reviews can’t be wrong and I gladly add to them. It’s all, inevitably, delicious. I polish the meal off with a generous slice of apple cake and tea, which I sip while watching passers-by mosey around the cobbled streets below.

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Pictured above L-R: Game tasting at The Chequers, interior of The Chequers, courtesy of Facebook / The Chequers.

Threading forays into British fodder through my trip, I also sample lunch at the award-winning gastro-pub, The Chequers. Surrounded by a dusky palette of greys, greens and blues, all accented by the mismatched wooden furniture, I settle down in a cosy corner booth boasting vast windows. Perusing the seasonal and ever-changing menu, I opt for the salmon teriyaki, served with crispy skin, mooli (radish) and a herb-loaded yoghurt. Light and refreshing, there is an artistry to the presentation not often seen in the traditional British pub. This is followed by the equally beautiful beef skirt with a salad of exceedingly crisp heirloom tomatoes and a delicate choron sauce. I find space for the peanut semifreddo with cookie and peach which, unsurprisingly, is delightfully moreish.

However, gastronomes visiting Bath simply have to visit Dan Moon at The Gainsborough, which boasts three AA Rosettes. Light and airy by day, this high ceilinged fine dining spot is transformed into a sultry candlelit haven by night. I tuck into a small tower of expertly sautéed scallop with shellfish risotto, king prawn and seaweed before diving into a roasted fillet of halibut. This stunning dish came alongside puffed wild rise, tendrils of crisp samphire and a cauliflower samosa – all delicious. I find space for the sublime lemon mousse topped with sharp raspberry sorbet and burnt meringue before I disappear up to my beautiful room to indulge my food coma.

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Pictured above, L-R: The Dan Moon Restaurant, courtesy of The Gainsborough Bath Spa, sautéed scallop with lobster & crab risotto courtesy of Facebook / The Gainsborough Bath Spa.

Of course, Bath is a historical city ripe for exploration. It’s cobbled streets and smatterings of Roman, Anglo Saxon, Medieval, Georgian and Victorian remains dotted throughout is enough to keep any antiquarian well-sated. I work off my array of delicious meals by roaming around the city, visiting the Royal Crescent, a famous half-moon of terraced houses erected in the 18th century, as well as the fascinating Herschel Museum of Astronomy and Bath Abbey. In the city centre, sand-coloured buildings lead me around corners to discover numerous hidden gems – Sydney Gardens, the adorable Pickled Greens café and Swoon Gelato, which has a gorgeous Penettone flavour.

At the heart of it all though, lies the iconic Roman Baths. Prior to the Roman buildings, the site is thought to have originally been an Iron Age shrine to Sulis, goddess of the hot springs bubbling beneath the city. While her name continued to be used throughout and after the Roman conquest, which began in around AD 43. While the Roman name for Bath was ‘Aquae Sulis’ (the waters of Sulis), she was later worshipped as Sulis Minerva. The temple itself was built sometime in AD 60-70, while the extraordinary bathing chambers sprung up over the following three centuries. The expertly preserved site is well worth a visit. I mosey around the museum, gawping at ancient coins and ‘cursed’ tablets, listening to one of my favourite authors, Bill Bryson, share his thoughts on the relics.

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Pictured above L-R: The Roman Baths courtesy of Bath Tourism and Bath Abbey, courtesy of Facebook / Bath Abbey.

I leave Bath with a heavy heart. It’s winding streets are loaded with charm and The Gainsborough feels a little too much like home. The perfect blend of luxury, history, wellness and wandering, I must insist that everyone visits this marvellous city sometime soon. After all, it’s just a stone’s throw from London…

Escape to Bath from London Paddington with Great Western Rail, which provides a frequent train service with a journey time of just one hour 30 minutes.

 thegainsboroughbathspa.co.uk ° gwr.com ° thermaebathspa.com ° visitbath.co.uk

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