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To restore Bath's raison d'etre by using the City's natural thermal springs for bathing and therapeutic purposes in line with the Council's original principles for the development of the Spa.
-The Bath Spa Project (one of six stated project objectives).

One of Bath's major tourist attractions and a key contributor to its world heritage site status is the famous Roman Baths, fed by the only naturally hot springs in the country. Whilst much of the roman plumbing work survives to this day, their use of lead piping and somewhat more restrictive modern health and safety concerns (plus the need to preserve such a historic location) makes the ancient religious site unsuitable for bathing.

History

But you need not look back thousands or even hundreds of years for examples of Bath's history as a spa town- as recently as 1978 a medical spa facility existed until the withdrawal of NHS support over concerns about the source. Since then, Bath, like others in Britain, has been a spa town in name only. Instead, a quarter of a million UK tourists visit continental spas each year, and the 1.2million litres of hot, mineral-enriched water that emerges every day in Bath goes entirely to waste as a therapeutic or leisure resource.

In fact, the city of Bath has been charged with responsibility for making the hot springs available since a 1591 royal charter granted by Queen Elizabeth (the first), and this duty now rests with the local government body, Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES) Council. Various attempts at rejuvenating the former medical Baths during the 80s and 90s faltered, to the frustration of tourists and locals alike. However, in 1997 almost £8million in lottery funding was secured and work began on the Thermae Bath Spa, for completion in 2000 for the new millenium.

The Vision

The Bath Spa project is ambitious in its reach. The creation of a new spa complex was intended to boost both leisure and health facilities in the area. It was to draw even more tourists to the historic city whilst being accessible to its permanent residents. Rejuvenation would happen at both a physical (of listed buildings) and economic (through direct creation of new employment opportunities and additional tourist revenues) level. Finally, the work should enhance knowledge of, preserve and protect the thermal springs and be aware of other environmental concerns, through careful management of heat and CO2 production. In all, it was to be a beacon for Bath and spa culture in general, whilst creating a new landmark and an example of construction in harmony with the physical environment upon which it depends.

The Buildings

Visitors to Bath could easily be forgiven for assuming that the impressive glass structure, just down the street from the Roman baths and Georgian pump rooms is the Thermae project in its entirety. In fact, the imposing structure is just one of a six-building complex. A key aim of the project was to restore five existing Georgian buildings around the site of the former Beau Street Baths- a delicate task, given that all are listed buildings-

  • The Cross Bath (Grade I)
  • The Hot Bath (Grade II*)
  • 7-7a Bath Street (Grade I)
  • 8 Bath Street (Grade I)
  • The Hetling Pump Room (Grade II)

Responsibility for restorative work lies with Donald Insall Associates, with the challenge of adapting confined historic resources for modern architectural purposes. Both the Hot Bath and 7-7a Bath Street buildings are earmarked for medical treatment, both curative and preventative therapies.

The contemporary construction, known as the New Royal Spa, was designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, a renowned architectural practice responsible for projects such as the International Terminal at London's Waterloo station, as one of four millenium projects they worked on. Theirs was the winning application of over 130 initial designs for the site. The most notable features are the roof-top pool and a serious amount of stainless steel and glass- intended to optimise the use of heat and light within the building. This being Bath, of course, there's plenty of creamy coloured stone to mask the concrete.

Ove Arup & Partners are responsible for design engineering, whilst the majority of the building work is in the hands of Mowlem plc.

Facilities and services

The official site of operators TDC, at http://www.thermaebathspa.com, gives a full description of the resources available at the site, but as a brief overview:
  • The new facility houses two baths drawing upon the natural hot springs (one on the roof!); 8 massage rooms; four steam rooms linked by a central waterfall shower; plus the usual changing rooms, and relaxation spaces, plus the "inner space" for group classes such as Yoga.
  • The Hot Bath, 12 treatment rooms and a natural thermal pool.
  • The Cross Bath is recognised as a sacred site, separate from the main complex with its own open-air thermal bath.
  • A restaurant, visitors centre, and meeting rooms.

The range of treatments available is staggering- with a holistic view that encompasses techniques both old and new, drawing on medicine and philosophy from both the West and the East. The assortment of massage types, Vichy showers, wraps, aromatherapies, half a dozen types of bath (including chardonnay!), Reiki... your guess is as good as mine what the Alpine Hay Chamber is for. Alongside these are specialist treatments for sports injuries, whilst the natural healing properties of the waters for rheumatic complaints have been of interest to doctors for hundreds of years.

The Grand Opening

In August of 2003, after several years setback, the Three Tenors gave a concert performance at the Royal Crescent, to mark the opening of Thermae Bath Spa. Since then, hundreds of visitors have.. Oops. Sorry. My mistake.

The Grand Controversy

You may have noticed that my writeup is still in the present tense when it regards the construction work, and that the services on offer are all reported on in a somewhat hypothetical manner. Well, there's a reason. There was indeed an opening concert with the Tenors. There just wasn't an opening (I guess we fancied the concert anyway, since it was all booked). In fact, the complex is still shut, five years behind schedule, and hasn't had any paying customers. The council, the builders, and the architects remain in legal deadlock over the assignment of blame and the final cheque to fix it all.

Worse, it seems there's a lot to fix. Whilst the construction minister, Nigel Griffiths, pointed the finger squarely at the council, branding them the most incompetent local authority in the country in the process, their argument, that somewhere between the designers and the constructors the pool paint should be checked for waterproof qualities, bears some merit.

As it is, concerns range from said paint to damp in the lower levels to just what will happen to the pumping equipment and electrics when switched on after a year of lying dormant. The large glass panes are also attracting vandalism. Legal wranglings and financial arguments just drag the process out further- although Mowlem claims (in Feb 2005) that it can complete the project in six months, that figure depends on them being handed total control of the project. That seems unlikely. Meanwhile, B&NES has hiked council tax due to "pressures from the major capital projects" and has sent out information sheets to all local residents trying to wash their hands of blame with regards to the whole scheme; the local media regularly digs up the story; and it's becoming a national embarassment.

I would have loved to see the project finished. From the outside, the structural work, both old and new, looks amazing. I can enthuse about the views of the city for hours- surely they'd be even better from a roof-top, naturally heated springwater pool on a cool night. I had hoped to sample them before I graduated - after all, the Romans carried out their construction without all these setbacks, nearly 2000 years ago, and it's still pretty much there - but it was not to be. Thermae finally opened its doors to the public on August 7th, 2006, a month after I had left the city.


References

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