Bath is one of the most ancient cities in the UK – but nothing here is older than the water from its hot springs.
It fell as rain around 10,000 years ago and sank 2km into the ground. Here hot rocks heat it to 69C (156F) before it bubbles to the earth’s surface – conveniently at perfect bathing temperature.
The city that has grown up around these hot springs is globally famous for its handsome architecture. And it’s been attracting tourists for almost 2,900 years.
So we booked a lodge with self-catering holiday specialists Hoseasons and started a weekend of Christmas shopping, historical discovery and pampering.
What really happened in a Roman bathhouse?
The Romans didn’t invent Bath. It was discovered in 863BC when the Celtic Prince Bladud was cured from his skin disease after bathing in the waters.
By the time the Romans arrived, around 60AD, it was already an ancient British shrine. But the Romans combined those traditions with their own bathing culture. They identified their goddess Minerva with the local deities and built a shrine as well as a bathhouse.
Washing in the water was only part of the ritual. They would strip off, exercise and proceed through hot rooms – like modern saunas – before getting in the led-lined warm pool.
But it wasn’t all wholesome. Thieves would take your belongings while you were bathing. At Bath you can see the curses the Romans would throw into the sacred spring, calling on the gods to punish them.
Alongside slaves to provide massages, prostitutes sold their services. And Roman poetry indicates there was a good amount of gay cruising too.
A tour of the Roman Baths is the absolute must of a visit to Bath. With the water still flowing through the Roman pipework, it’s not just a museum but a time machine.
Thermae Bath Spa
Incredibly you can still bathe in the water. Take the Roman bathing experience, add swimming costumes and lockers, and you get the modern Thermae Bath Spa.
We started in the rooftop pool, with views over the medieval Bath Abbey. Mist rolled down from the high hills that surround the city and mingled with the steam rising from the warm, mineral laden water.
There’s also an indoor pools and four big steam rooms, each with their own essential oils. One each for eucalyptus, sandalwood, lotus flower and lemongrass and ginger.
It’s one of the UK’s best travel experiences. And it’s good for you. Spa comes from the Latin ‘Salus Per Aquam’ which means ‘health through water’. And the mineral springs do wonders for your skin and hair.
You don’t just bathe in the past in Bath, you get a taste of it too.
Sally Lunn’s is a little restaurant based in the city’s oldest house, dating from 1482. She is said to have been a French refugee who brought a brioche style bun to Bath in the 1680s.
And her buns still taste delicious. Between the four of us we tried ones topped with cinnamon butter, eggs and bacon, Welsh Rarebit and even salt beef.
Or, if you fancy the Jane Austen Bath experience, try the Pump Room. The novelist used this grand Georgian hall as a setting in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Today, you can tuck in to afternoon tea, served with sandwiches, cakes, macaroons, fruit tart, scones and lashings of clotted cream.
Bath becomes even more popular at this time of year thanks to a thriving Christmas market.
While carol singers and brass bands serenade you, you can browse through cobbled squares packed with stalls.
Many local artists, crafts people, vineyards, breweries and farms are represented. Most Christmas markets sell the same things as each other, so it was great to see Bath putting local businesses first.
And of course, it wouldn’t be a Christmas market without a limitless supply of mulled wine and hot chocolate.
A place to relax
We wanted to combine our visit to the city with a country retreat. So we struck gold when we discovered Bath Mill Lodge Retreat on the edge of Bath through the Hoseasons site.
Set by a babbling brook in a sunny little valley, the lodges are surrounded by thickly wooded hills. The result is perfect tranquility. Add that to incredibly comfortable beds and we all had the best night’s sleep we’ve enjoyed for weeks.
All the lodges are modern and spotless with great facilities. Ours had two doubles and one twin room, with one shared bathroom and one en-suite.
The living space is huge, with enormous sofas, a large dining table and kitchen. There’s also a big decking area, so you can dine al fresco.
The kitchen has all the equipment you need to self cater – including a dishwasher, so there was no need to wash up.
And naturally there are big flatscreen TVs and wifi.
There’s a restaurant and bar inside the 350-year-old stone mill house, so you can enjoy great bistro-style food if you don’t want to cook. Next door there’s a small gym.
Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
But there’s no need to do exercise indoors when you are at Bath Mill. It’s set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – perfect for any outdoor activity from walking to caving.
We headed to one of Britain’s great geological wonders – Cheddar Gorge. Intrepid goats graze the towering stone cliffs while peregrine falcons, buzzards and kestrels wheel and dive over its heights.
A network of paths and bridleways lead you through woodland up to high hills with dramatic views across the countryside.
Under your feet are Cheddar’s caves where Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton, Cheddar Man, estimated to be over 9,000 years old, was found. The caves are still used today to age the world-famous Cheddar cheese.
Bath Mill Lodge Retreat is a great base to explore further. National Trust stately houses, Wookey Hole Caves and Stonehenge are all close by.
In Bath itself, there are more museums, art galleries and the architectural elegance of the homes on the Royal Crescent and Circus to explore. Plus great restaurants, bars (including a small gay scene) and shops.
So immerse yourself in history and leave feeling relaxed and pampered.
Bath Mill Lodge Retreat
- Luxury lodges with stylish interiors
- 350 year old renovated mill houses a bistro and bar
- State-of-the-art fitness suite
- Children’s play area
- Just three miles from Bath city center
Festive three night stays for two start from just £299**, plus 2017 breaks can be secured today for just £30 low deposit*.
For city breaks and lodge escapes with a slice of tranquility, head over to hoseasons.co.uk or call 0345 498 6405. Romantic retreats, group trips, family breaks and pet-friendly options are all catered for.
*Please click here for terms and conditions.
**Price based on a three night stay in a Norland Lodge starting 23 December 2016. Applies to selected accommodation, accommodation only.