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Bath in England: Roman Spa and Georgian Fashion

Bath, England

The lovely town of Bath has attracted visitors since ancient Romans came to use its spa. When spa tourism increased in the 18th century, Bath became an elegant resort, sporting Georgian architecture and stylish fashion.

Complete Video Script

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Bath was the trendsetting Hollywood of Britain. If ever a town enjoyed looking in the mirror, Bath's the one. And its narcissism is justified. Locals brag that they have more "government-listed" or protected historic buildings per capita than any other town in England.

The entire city, built of the creamy limestone called "Bath stone," beams in its cover-girl complexion. An architectural chorus line, it's a triumph of the 18th century Georgian style. Proud locals remind visitors that the town is routinely banned from the "Britain in Bloom" contest to give other towns a chance to win. Even with its mobs of tourists — 2 million a year — Bath is a joy to visit. Good looking towns are not rare, but few combine beauty and hospitality as well as Bath.

Visitors have been enjoying Bath for thousands of years. Even before the Romans arrived in the 1st century — the place was famous for its hot springs. For the ancient Romans, it was a popular spa town.

The town's importance carried through the Middle Ages, when it was considered the religious capital of Britain. In 973 King Edgar — called the first king of England — was crowned right here.

Later Bath prospered as a wool town. With the money it made from wool, Bath built its grand abbey. This church — the last great medieval church built in England — is 500 years old. The Abbey's facade features a very literal Jacob's Ladder — with angels going up… and down.

The interior features breezy fan vaulting and is lit with enough stained glass to earn it the nickname "Lantern of the West." With its broad windows and strong vertical lines, it's a fine example of Late Perpendicular Gothic.

Bath's heyday passed and by the middle of the 1600s, its population had dropped to about 1500 people — just a huddle of huts at the base of its abbey. Its residents were oblivious to the fact that their smelly mud was covering up the ruins of an ancient Roman spa. Then, in 1687, an English queen struggling with infertility came here and bathed. Within about 10 months she gave birth to a son. Soon after that, Queen Anne came here to treat her gout. With all this royal interest, Bath the spa town was reborn.

The revitalized town prospered as a resort. Most of the buildings you'll see today are from the 18th century. Local architects were inspired by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio to build a "new Rome."

The town boomed and the streets were built not with scrawny sidewalks but with broad "parades," upon which gentlemen would stroll and the women in their stylish dresses could spread their fashionable tails.

This is the Royal Crescent. Dating from the 1770s, these are the first Georgian "condos." "Georgian" is British for "neoclassical." As you cruise the Crescent imagine you're one of Baths' upper crust. What appears to be a seamless front lawn is actually an optical trick. The hidden wall called a 'ha-ha' fence keeps sheep and picnicking peasants out without creating an eyesore.

The Georgian House — at the prestigious address #1 Royal Crescent — gives an intimate peek into the lavish lifestyles of this age.

Volunteers in each room are determined to fill you in on all the fascinating details.

Docent: Georgian ladies were extremely fashionable, not fashions as we would think of them today because if they were very fashionable women they would wear the French wigs and they didn't start until this part of the head, so this hair here was shaved off, that meant your eyebrows were in the wrong place, they had to be shaved off and then you had little mouse-skin eyebrows stuck on further up the head.

And the kitchen had all the latest Georgian gizmos.

Rick: So, what is this mechanism?
Docent: This is a turn-spit powered by the dog. The dog was bred specially for the wheel. He went in for 2 hours and then another dog would come in to replace him until the joint of meat was cooked.
Rick: So he spins the meat?
Docent: Yes.
Rick: And if he stops walking…what if he just says I'm going to go on strike…
Docent: Well, first of all, prod him with sticks and then, last resort…shovel of coals in there… hot coals, he runs.
Rick: So, a nice steak, you've got to thank your dog.
Docent: Yes, exactly.

A block away is another fine bit of Georgian architecture called The Circus. It feels like a coliseum turned inside out. Its Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian capital decorations pay homage to its classical inspiration. Servants lived in attic rooms just below the characteristic chimneys — one for each heated room.

The ancient Roman baths are the town's sightseeing centerpiece. High society here goes all the way back to Roman times, when big shots enjoyed the mineral springs at Bath. From Londinium, Romans traveled to Aquae Sulis, as the city was called, to "take a bath." Eventually, the name became simply — Bath.

This ancient Roman pool is still lined with its original lead — nine tons of it. You can almost imagine those Romans lounging around — sipping wine, schmoozing… just like they did in faraway Rome.

Today, a fine museum surrounds the ancient bath. Roman artifacts and the remains of a temple pediment evoke a sophisticated city. The hot thermal water still bubbles — as it has for nearly two thousand years — past ancient Roman bricks. Enjoy some quality time looking into the eyes of Minerva, goddess of the hot springs.

After Rome fell, in the fifth century, these old pools silted up and Bath was forgotten as a spa. Over a thousand years later, when those English queens came here to soak and believed that its curative waters actually helped them become pregnant and deal with their gout, word of its wonder waters spread, and Bath was back on the aristocratic map.

High society soon turned the city into one big pleasure palace. The Pump Room, an elegant Georgian salon just above the Roman baths, offers the visitor's best chance to raise a pinky in this neo-Classical grandeur. Drop by for a fancy, three-tiered, afternoon tea… or just sip the curative spa water.

Rick: Ok, so, Bath water?
Waiter: Yes, this is Bath water. Generally, this has got about 43 different minerals in it. Things like arsenic, bromide, calcium, lithium… so it's made from a lot of earth-metals; very, very high mineral content. This water is about 10,000 years old, comes to a temperature of about 116 Fahrenheit, so, about 44 Celsius.
Rick: And what does it do for me? Is it going to like make me live forever?
Waiter: Generally, it'll cure a number of different illnesses. Things like rheumatism, gout. If you're suffering from impetigo, angina, so mainly, it's almost a sort of a painkiller in a way.
Rick: It tastes badly enough to be healthy, I guess. Cheers! Thanks.

Above it all is a statue of Beau Nash, Bath's "master of ceremonies" in the 1700s. Nash was a one man tourism promotion department — organizing the daily regimen of the aristocratic visitors, spiffing up the city, and banning swords.

You don't need a guide to enjoy Bath's Museum of Costume. It displays 400 years of fashion — one frilly decade at a time. With provided audio guides doing the tour guiding, you can track the evolution of clothing styles right through the ages.

In about 1600 gloves were an important accessory — made with white goat skin, lovingly embroidered, and designed to make your fingers look more elegant and slender than they really were.

In the 1740s, aristocratic women wore basket-like hoops to show off their fabulously expensive and extravagantly embroidered court dresses.

In the mid-1800s, women shaped their bodies with smaller "under structures." Those wide hoops evolved to more discreet bustles.

With the outbreak of WWII designers made dresses that were chic yet practical, stylish yet simple. Bath's Museum of Costume takes you right up to today.

Bath was not all aristocratic splendor. There's a grittier side to its history as well. Like the rest of England, the story here in the 19th Century was the Industrial Revolution.

At the Museum of Bath at Work, volunteers show off the quirky business of the ingenious Mr. Bowler.

Guide: This is the heavy machine shop dating all these machines between about 1850 to 1880. Steam driven and with a set of machines like this, there was virtually no job he couldn't tackle.
Rick: People in the town had a need… Mr. Bowler could take care of it.
Guide: Absolutely.

And Mr. Bowler took advantage of the local waters too. He bottled his own fizzy water.

Guide: Right, this is where he bottled his mineral waters.
Rick: So, soda-pop was one of his businesses?
Guide: Absolutely, yes, and it was filled on this rather ingenious machine you see here… and all you did you rotated that around…
Rick: And there you go. Wow!
Guide: There you are.
Rick: Mr. Bowler soda pop 1875.
Guide: That’s right.

Bath is drenched in history. And a great way to learn absolutely nothing about that is to join the Bizarre Bath walk. Each evening through the summer local actors give visitors a goofy and immensely entertaining dose of street theater.

Actor: Well, we're going to stop here for a second because… well I'm exhausted… actually that’s the most walking I've done for ages and at this stage we're going to prove that there is such a thing as mind reading. For those of you who are telepathic, here's a quick joke for you first of all…

At this stage I'd like to show you how to truly be accepted as a local person here in Bath. Cause this is a local bylaw, a local regulation that states quite clearly that one has to hop across this road. If local people see you hopping across the road, they think you're a local person as well and they smile at you very warmly… Over, over you go, that's good, over you go.