Magical History Tour, Day Four (Continued): The Baths At Last

So we made it. It was a little questionable there for a while, given the whole ordeal we had to go through, but there we were, at last.

Roman Baths: Mission Accomplished.

We paid the entrance fee and shuffled in. For all the shortness of the queue, it was still impressively crowded. I can’t imagine what Saturday would have been like.

A guided audio tour is included with your fee, so Joe collected one and we proceeded into the first room. As I’d already been before, I opted not to carry one around as I thought it somehow interfere with the feel of the place, but in retrospect I almost wish I had, if only so that I wouldn’t spend so much time waiting around for Joe while he listened to the commentary. While it’s wonderful to see so many people learning about history, there’s just something surreal and disconcerting about walking into a room and seeing a group of people standing stock still, with these devices held up to their ears, gaze stuck somewhere in the middle distance. Rather than discussing what they see and feel with their friends or family on the group, they stand alone and silent. Even though they may be physically close, they go through the exhibits as an island of experience, alone. There’s something just really sad about that.

But I digress.

The route through the Baths first takes you outside to an upper promenade circling the main pool.

Main Pool, Roman Baths

One of the downsides to visiting during the off-season, as we found, was that’s when they tend to do their restoration work, so bits of it were covered in scaffolding, but it was still quite striking. There’s nothing quite like it.

Although what remains of the baths is obviously somewhat different than the way it looked in the era of the Romans, the statues along the rim give it a kind of noble, Roman, Age-of-Gods-and-Heroes kind of feel.

From there, you progress around the pool and back into the building and the museum proper, with the various artifacts and reconstructions, including things they’ve found in and around the baths, like pieces of metal with curses carved in– requests to the gods and goddesses to curse their enemies for wrongs they’ve committed. There’s a good blend of traditional artifacts in cases with nearby placards explaining what you’re seeing and its historical context and more modern interpretations. In several places, looped video showing scenes of typical Roman life and activity at the Baths were projected onto a wall. I ended up watching a lot of these while I waited for Joe to finish with the room. I can read a lot faster than the audio guides speak.

By far, one of the most striking pieces in the exhibit is the reconstruction of a pediment which originally stood at the Baths, way back when.  Very cleverly, a projector slowly shifts from just lighting up the remaining pieces, to showing the missing pieces, and then ultimately the way it was originally colored. It must have been amazing to be around that every day.

Reconstructed Pediment, Roman Baths

The centerpiece is a centerpiece for a reason, clearly.

Various areas of the exhibits give you glimpses into other parts of the baths. The water bubbles as it comes up and you can see the steam just above the surface.

Another Pool, Roman Baths

Once you make your way through the museum exhibits, you find yourself back on the ground level around the main pool.

The waters aren’t roped off, but there are signs every few feet or so telling you not to touch the water as it’s untreated. What the signs don’t tell you is that you can get meningitis and die from amoebas in the untreated water. Oh, and you know, there are those pesky lead pipes.  So this is definitely a bad idea.

When I was there in 2005, my friend and I saw a guy surreptitiously slurping handfuls of water from the main pool. (Hey, it’s supposed to have healing powers, right?)

Apparently that never goes out of style. Check out the guy in the background…

Main Pool, Roman Baths

Gross.

Most of the rest of the exhibits are what remains of some of the old rooms. They’re interesting, but are mostly old, stone, and wet. It’s difficult to appreciate the grandeur of the complete Bath complex nearly two thousand years later.

Piled Rocks, Roman Baths

These held up a floor, I think. 

At the end of the tour, you hang up your audio guide, and there’s a running spigot of authentic [treated] Roman Bath water and some little paper cups in case you want to try it for yourself. No brain-eating amoebas here, and you don’t even have to make your way to the Pump Room upstairs to get yourself a glass.  Joe and I could hardly miss the opportunity, so we filled up some paper cups and toasted to our health.

The water has roughly the temperature and taste of warm, dirty bodies. Not. Good.

Joe (making a face): That’s definitely not Brita.

Let’s just say we weren’t in a rush to fill our Nalgene bottles with any authentic Roman Bath water.

Walking on Water, Roman Baths

Next stop: Avebury.

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