In British lingo, a soldier is a thin strip of toast. I think of that when I return to Bath recently—years after visiting as a child. Then, I found it amusing to dip those elongated pieces of crunchy snow-white bread, the kitchen’s militia men, into a soft boiled egg. Then, I pretended to be a real English child in the little teahouses that snuggled into the cobblestoned streets of this Somerset-located, ancient market town. Unchanged in many ways, surrounded by bucolic terrain, Bath still evokes soldiers to me, thanks to its dove-grey, stalwart Georgian architecture. Erect, serious, immaculate, neatly lined up, the buildings seem to stand at attention, stretching to the sky. A harmonious hamlet that makes you wish to linger, Bath, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is most extolled for its circa 43 AD Roman bathhouse and hot, mineral-rich, healing springs.
It has history. Queen Anne bathed here—as did nearly every noble person at the time. But what I loved most then, (and still find exciting), is that Jane Austen once inhabited the town.
So, soldiers long eaten, I spent my childhood and pre-teen days there tucked into tea shops, munching a Sally Lunn bun (the town’s official, brioche-like tea cake), sipping Earl Grey from a china cup, and scribbling in a journal. Wanting to be Jane Austen, I could imagine her everywhere, penning away, perhaps on that bench in front of Bath Abbey, perhaps alongside the Roman Baths themselves. Once, I encountered children dancing around a maypole. It was like watching fairies in flight. Their chubby hands holding brightly colored ribbons, their bodies twisting in circles, their laugher wafting through the air. I wanted to join them, but being older and self-conscious, I pretended to prefer the Roman Baths,which I visited with my mother. Germ-conscious, she forbade me to touch the water, which had rising steam and a stench much like rotten eggs. The moldering walls, as I remember them, had a romantic aura, and I swore I could see the ghosts of first-century Romans splashing about. When my mother turned away, I poked my finger into the scorching water, blessing myself with its scalding touch and my desire to reject authority—albeit in my small, finger-digit kind of way.
The moldering walls, as I remember them, had a romantic aura, and I swore I could see the ghosts of first-century Romans splashing about.
Today, Bath both honors its past and embraces the present. Modernity prevails amid a backdrop poised in time. Pubs, theaters, mom-and-pop boutiques, cafes, and some recognizable global shops line the streets. Flower sellers abound, throngs visit in busy season, and street musicians ply their talent. A stellar museum welcomes guests, proving why Bath reigns as one of the only entire cities to be honored by UNESCO. In the historic bathhouse, weddings and parties take place, and regular tai chi practitioners draw inspiration on the terrace—the healing spring just steps away. But it’s the swanky Gainsborough Spa Bath, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, that’s most likely to propel this old time haven into another sphere. Utilizing two historic buildings, the elegant hotel boasts exclusive privileges to Bath’s curative waters. Available only to hotel guests (or to the public via a neighboring, hotel-owned day spa), The Gainsborough’s thermal water circuit awaits. Located in Spa Village Bath, it was influenced by the Roman method of soaking. I leap into the warm waters about an hour before my spa treatment. There, plunging into a variety of pools, I ruminate or sit beneath the power of pouring faucets aimed at my knotted shoulders and neck. For long, hot minutes I sit inside a sauna and steam room.
The water takes charge. When the attendant, Kabir Ali, arrives to take me to my treatment, I’m already greatly relaxed. The treatment begins ceremonially when Kabir asks me to write anything that troubles me on a wax tablet. Afterwards, he instructs me to inhale deeply, while he sweeps away my words, clearing my energy for the treatment. The Magnesium Wrap, chosen as a perfect complement to the mineral effusive spring waters, begins with a lavender oil body scrub. A detoxifying massage with magnesium oil follows. Cocooned to maximize absorption from the energizing magnesium, I relax while Kabir massages my feet with Fuss balm and mists my face with hydrating Neroli water. A tranquil man with healing energy, and two decades of experience, Kabir says, “This spa complex is special. I feel my body charging with positive energy the moment I enter. This feeling comes form the thermal water, and its my job to transfer that energy to every guest I treat.” And, that’s when I leave visions of Jane Austen (somewhat) behind. After all, who needs Mr. Darcy, when you have Kabir, and who needs a journal to entice reflection when you have these salutary mineral waters. I’ll take Bath and I’ll do my bathing in style at The Gainsborough Bath Spa.
Becca Hensley is Editor at Large for Insider's Guide to Spas. Based in Austin, she writes regularly about travel and spas. She believes a good story draws you in like laughter in a crowded room, and challenges you to do it justice. Her work appears regularly in Austin Monthly, Travel Channel, Toronto Star and National Geographic Traveler.