The Roman baths in Bath closed more than 20 years ago. But now this historic English town is building a new spa that's a modern marvel. There may be value in putting old water in a new bottle
Grimshaw & Partners
| Credit: Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners

For more than 10,000 years, until 1978, the thing to do in Bath was bathe. A cradle of health tourism since prehistoric times, Britain's only hot springs became, in the late 18th century, an unimaginably stylish resort. The winter Bath Season provided entertainment to rival London's: there were concerts and balls in the grand Assembly Rooms; you would go—and you may still go—to the Pump Room to drink the salubrious (and mildly smelly) waters while a trio played a minuet. In its prime, Bath was renowned as "the premier resort of frivolity and fashion."

Even in Bath today, in England's wet western interior, you find a café owner who prefers to address you in Italian and news vendors who routinely stock Die Zeit and Le Monde. Innumerable "heritage" shops pander to itinerants of all tastes and pockets. Through an extraordinary profusion of museums, tours, books, and guides, all is explained, in interpretations ranging from the quaint (Sally Lunn's Bun Shoppe) to the relatively scholarly (the Building of Bath Museum). The town is a rightly proud, officially designated World Heritage City—and if the visitor occasionally feels worn out by the self-consciousness, the natives are even wearier. For since the closing of the last big manufacturer-employer, the crane-makers Stothert & Pitt, it seems that almost everybody, in one way or another, works in the tourist industry. Even Jane Austen is on the payroll, and her shrine—arranged in a narrow town house—is tastefully signposted everywhere. In fact, Bath welcomes more visitors per resident than any place in the world apart from Venice. How on earth, or rather, how in deeply provincial northeast Somerset, did all of this come to be?

In 1692, and again in 1702 and 1703, Queen Anne came to take the waters. And that was that. Where royalty led, the aristocracy followed, and just behind came the ambitious middle class. Into the same waters—remarkably enough, into the same pools—piled the desperately ill, the wretched, the festering, seeking relief from a seemingly unlimited number of ailments. The lepers alone had their own bath.

In fact, Bath's reign as the glamour destination for English Society lasted no more than 40 or 50 years. But the glories of the period continue to glow—and attract a new kind of "society": the 3.2 million annual visitors. For it was the enormous popularity of the waters in the Georgian era that brought about the great rebuilding of the city, giving us those gorgeous sun-soaked "Bath-stone" crescents, or semicircular streets.

THE GREATEST ATTRACTION, THOUGH ONE PERHAPS NOT SO instantly evocative of the city as its immaculate curving stoneworks, is the Roman Baths, built directly over the sacred spring. (The building housing the baths is now also a museum.) But just to look out on the luminous opaque green of the Great Bath, or to sit at the water's edge above ancient, partially submerged, perfectly decayed stone steps, is an unexpectedly moving experience (one not well caught by the Acoustiguide, with its clip-cloppy sound track). It is here where you grasp the degree to which the waters are the key to and the essence of Bath.

Still, with all that the city has to offer, something has been missing. Call it heart. Or call it soul. The baths have been closed since 1978 (following the death of a 14-year-old girl from a form of meningitis associated with an amoeba that thrives in hot water). As my taxi driver, a lifelong inhabitant named Richard, put it, "There's so much to see in Bath. But there is nothing to do."

When you arrive by train from Paddington Station, you descend at a station called Bath Spa. But it is a spa in name only. Thanks in part to a windfall from the lottery-rich Millennium Commission, however, the heart and soul of Bath is soon to revive. October 2002, it is promised, will see the completion of the super-modern $30 million Bath Spa Project, designed by one of Britain's best-known high-tech architectural firms, Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners. The jewel in this altogether crammed and compressed crown—the spa will fit into a tight corner of the city's historic Georgian center—will certainly be the open-air thermal pool on the roof of Grimshaw's new three-story Bath-stone cube. Here you'll be able to soak up the lush landscape, including the vast Palladian idyll of Prior Park and the slopes of Bathwick, Widcombe, and Lyncombe hills.

The cube, which will support a pool but is also to be built over another, free-form pool, has predictably been labeled "controversial." But somehow the structure fits, and not just for its quota of local stone. One of the best, and least marketed, experiences of Bath is the way in which the visitor to the Royal Crescent—for now, still the city's undisputed architectural prize—is almost imperceptibly delivered into the surrounding scenery of storybook valleys. The sidewalk actually slopes down and away toward the open view, making the visitor, in a great exhalation, master of all he beholds. It is a small and subtle thing, but that is the nature of the harmony of Bath. Grimshaw's shimmering aerie, the cube-top pool, also consciously places the person in the picture, with less subtlety, perhaps, but no less efficacy.

BATHONIANS, MANY OF WHOM HAVE NEVER TESTED THE WATER, and most of whom, like natives everywhere, wouldn't think of paying for the view ($24 per two-hour session, $50 a day), are unimpressed. Tina, a receptionist in her twenties at a bus tour company, says of the project, "It doesn't affect me," and admits she would have preferred a bowling alley and a cineplex. Robert, a mature bellhop at my hotel, thought the once-abundant casinos should have been brought back. (Local historian John Haddon calls Bath an "eighteenth-century English Las Vegas.") If history—and the word at the tourist board—is anything to go by, all these things should follow from the revitalization of the city's original attraction. According to Peter Rollins at the Bath Tourism & Conference Bureau, it will also bring hundreds of new jobs and, crucially, a reason for the tourists who already visit Bath to remain—not for a season perhaps, but just that little bit longer.

At the moment, the spa is exclusively for those with a vivid imagination (my own was fired by a digital model on a computer screen, which virtual visitors can tour at The actual site of the future complex is a large, deep, and very muddy hole filled with huge cranes (they're not even by Stothert & Pitt). But the Dutch operators, along with the city, which will own the place, are convinced that their new complex will have something for everyone. Two Georgian baths, now empty shells, will be refitted for use—one of them geared toward locals. Visitors from near and far will be offered the newest treatments and some of the oldest. In addition to the pools, there will be steam rooms (glass, circular, and freestanding), massage rooms, air beds, a solarium, a "preventorium," and a gym. Treatments will include acupuncture, fango mud, herbal wraps, Kneipp baths, shiatsu, and food (a restaurant, that is).

If it all sounds run-of-the-mill to the spa-savvy, it couldn't be more fantastical, more frankly millennial, to the local population. For in Britain, of the renowned (and now treatable) stiff upper lip, the whole ethos of looking after oneself, whether as indulgence or as a matter of preventive health, is fundamentally alien. (In the 18th century people went to the baths either as a cure for some established ailment, or for social reasons, as they might go to a pub.) Things are evolving—and the Bath Spa Project, whatever you or locals think of it, is defining the shape of things to come.

But will the project—which aims to bring together the traditional, quasi-medicinal, long-stay European spa with the pampering pleasures of an upmarket day spa—appeal to the visitors the city is keen to keep?The formidable obstacles to the opening of new baths have included not only the delicate archaeological work of protecting the Roman underpinnings that run beneath the whole city, and of preserving and incorporating important Georgian buildings. The city has also had to reassure a wary public—and a changed public—that the waters are really worth having back. (To be fair, the quality of the water at its source, as opposed to its antiquated delivery system, has never been in doubt.)

I, for one, need no persuasion. Can there be a more idyllic combination for the worldly and, at some point, weary traveler than an inspiring morning at the Roman Baths followed by an afternoon a few blocks away in its modern echo, the Grimshaw baths, where you will be able to immerse yourself in the city's greatest heritage, its heart and soul, the steaming, healing, and now-safe-for-soaking hot springs?

Marcia Kilgore, owner of New York's Bliss Spa, shares her favorite European watering holes:

Brittany Seaweed harvested off these famous French shores seems to present a certain power, especially when prescribed for bloat, blight, or, best of all, bulge.

Tuscany After you spend the day soaking up the sulfurs in Saturnia, you'll finish off with fine wine and farm-fresh food. It's all the glory, with none of the guilt.

Vichy My favorite hydrotherapeutic feeling is the cascading waterfall effect that comes after a body treatment, when a Vichy shower washes you off.

Baden-Baden If you're counting on an efficient, serious treatment schedule, this German town is your best bet.