“This place gets under your skin,” says Paul Simons. “My heart is here.” Then he adds, “Bath is the only spa in the world that is a World Heritage Site,” as if he has to justify his feelings. But he doesn’t, at least not to me. Paul and I are having tea in the chic Canvas Room of the elegant new Gainsborough Spa Bath hotel. It’s late July, and the hotel will have its grand opening in a few months.
I’m happy to be here for a number of reasons—but at the moment, I’m pleasantly stunned to be reunited with a kindred spirit. I haven’t seen Paul in 15 years, when we met after his lecture at an international spa conference in Italy. A founder of the European Spas Association and the European Historic Thermal Towns Association, Paul is Secretary General to the Great Spas of Europe UNESCO project. He was once dubbed by The Telegraph as “the man who bathes for England.”
The topic of his lecture all those years ago was the revival of the city of Bath, via a new spa to be built among five historic buildings in the center of the city. Paul, who trained as an architect and has worked on conservation projects for more than 30 years, was responsible for the construction of that new spa—Thermae Bath Spa. It’s a project that still gives me goose bumps to think about: A new spa in the center of the only World Heritage site that is a spa! When it finally opened to great fanfare in 2006, Bath witnessed a rush of new hotel activity—but the Gainsborough takes the cake.
The Gainsborough Spa Bath: Dignity in its Bones
The Gainsborough, owned by YTL Hotels, is the only hotel in Bath to be named a Leading Hotel of The World. It’s also the only hotel in the whole of the United Kingdom with direct access to a mineral-rich thermal spring. There are layers and layers of history here—and I felt them as I walked through the beautifully appointed halls and up and down the grand staircase. During an excavation, Roman coins were found, and a handful are now on display in the lobby. Additionally, rooms of an ancient Roman spa complex were uncovered, including the remains of a 4th-century Roman mosaic. A replica of that same mosaic may be found in Spa Village Bath, the new spa’s relaxation room.
“It’s not only a Roman ruin, it’s a place of great ceremony and ritual, and also a place of a nineteenth-century royal hospital—that implies a Spartan-like esthetic,” states Alexandra Champalimaud, the woman whose impeccable taste graces the hotel. An award-winning designer, she is a sought-after leader in the field of hospitality design. “It’s not a place to be wildly decorated or frilled or flowered up. It’s a place which has dignity in its bones and honors the architecture of Bath.”
“It’s not a place to be wildly decorated or frilled or flowered up. It’s a place which has dignity in its bones and honors the architecture of Bath.”
Indeed the new hotel was originally built as the Royal United Hospital (early 1800s) and Bellott’s Hospital (1609). The landmark buildings feature stately Georgian and Victorian facades, and are connected by a newly formed underpass. The hotel takes its name from the artist Sir Thomas Gainsborough, who lived in Bath between 1759 and 1774. Its buildings are situated around the heart of the hotel—a covered atrium that contains the Bath House’s largest thermal water pool.
Alexandra says the place spoke to her—and the result of whatever its ghosts may have whispered in her ear—is at once serene, elegant, and unfussy. “I wasn’t about to over-decorate the rooms,” she says. “They had to have a sense of Englishness and a sense of great warmth and coziness—but yet it is a nineteenth-century royal hospital and it has these beautiful Roman skeletons underneath it.” Colors are gentle and muted—grays, browns, a certain blue.
There are 99 simply beautiful guest rooms and suites (many have wonderfully high 18-foot ceilings and very, very tall windows), including three special spa suites (Rooms 123, 124, and 223) that look out onto the Chapel Arts Center and a peaceful green. What make these three rooms truly unique are the natural thermal waters that are pumped right into their roll-top tubs.
Nice notes: The playful toile antimacassars draped over headboards, depicting Gainsborough pastoral scenes; the complimentary bottle of Billecart-Salmon Champagne upon arrival; and some of the more thoughtful turndown items I’ve encountered, including a copy of Ten Bedtime Poems selected by Germaine Greer, a lavender-linseed silk eye mask handcrafted by a local woman, and a soothing facial mist and lip balm from Asprey.
Spa Village Bath: Honoring the Healing Culture
YTL’s Spa Village is an international luxury spa brand, first introduced to the world in 2001. Spa Villages may be found in Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, and Pangkor Laut, to name a few destinations. The Malaysian brand has made a name for itself by honoring the indigenous ingredients and age-old healing traditions of its many regions. In Bath, Spa Village stays true to its mission by offering a very modern experience that honors the city’s thermal water heritage.
The woman responsible for the magic behind Spa Village is Sylvia Sepielli, renowned spa consultant and award-winning mastermind who puts the “I” in indigenous. She has worked with YTL since the late 1990s. Of her work on Spa Village Bath, she tells me, “We all felt so much responsibility because this is such a special property, it’s an international treasure. Basically, I didn’t want to screw it up—I didn’t want to gild the lily.” She concentrated on two things: the waters and aromatherapy. Her combination is brilliant.
You enter Spa Village Bath through a small apothecary space where you may choose from a number of Neal Yard’s oils that are blended with salts then given to you in a small pouch meant to be brought with you to the steam and sauna and sniffed throughout. The first day I spent at the spa, I chose a de-stressing blend of neroli, jasmine, and ylang ylang. It must’ve worked because I practically melted away into unconsciousness. (The second day, I chose an uplifting blend of peppermint, lemon, and grapefruit oils.) Sylvia and team are working on making hydrosols with the thermal water and local flowers. And speaking of aromatherapy, I must mention that I had the best aromatherapy massage of my life at the spa. Created by Sylvia’s colleague, spa consultant Melissa Mettler (who has a background as a therapist), it knocked me out in a good way, and used a really unique massage technique that felt like a compilation of modalities, including Lomi Lomi. In addition to all of this wonderful aromatherapy, the spa has partnered with Kerstin Florian and Amala, two luxury skincare lines whose products are used in a number of the spa’s very good face and body treatments.
It turns out that the Romans wrote wishes—and at times even curses—onto small metal sheets when visiting the Baths. Who knew?
A nice touch: Pre-treatment, guests are guided into the intimate Water Ritual Room, which is off of the relaxation room (the oldest place in the hotel where you will find the aforementioned replica of the Roman mosaic which sits atop the 2,000-year-old original). There’s a small fountain here from which pours the thermal water. I was seated in a chair by the fountain, where I washed my hands before being given a wax tablet and a stylus. My therapist instructed me to etch an intention or a wish into the wax. It turns out that the Romans wrote wishes—and at times even curses—onto small metal sheets when visiting the Baths. Who knew?
The Heart of the Spa: The Water Circuit
Set over two levels, Spa Village Bath has a lovely circuit that involves soaking in three natural thermal pools of different temperatures (the main pool has a number of jets and waterfalls to explore), as well as a sauna, a prettily lit steam room, refreshing ice alcove, and lots of relaxation space around the Bath House that’s covered by a four-story glass atrium. During my stay, it rained, and I enjoyed relaxing in a chair in between soaks in the healing thermal waters, looking up at the sky while the rain gently tapped against the glass.
You should give yourself a full hour to truly experience the bathing circuit. If you’re part fish, as I am, you’ll want to spend even more time in the thermal waters. Note: the Bath House is a co-ed facility, so swimsuits are required.
After my last water circuit, I lay in the relaxation area and drank a small cup of pure hot chocolate, a special nod to Georgian times, and I contemplated all of the various special nods to history throughout this grand new hotel. As Alexandra told me, “It’s a place of water and potions and smells. There’s a sort of exoticism that can be brought to it from an archaeological standpoint. It’s an old place with a great story.”
10 Best Things to Do in Bath
1. Tour the Roman Baths, and learn how the Romans turned their obsession with bathing into an art. Romanbaths.co.uk
2. Book a treatment at the Thermae Bath Spa and soak in the thermal waters atop the open-air rooftop pool overlooking the historic city. Thermaebathspa.com
3. Go antiquing. Bath Antiques is spread out over three floors and is home to many objects sourced from the city’s Georgian houses. Antiquesfrombath.co.uk
4. Dine at Johann Lafer at The Gainsborough, quickly becoming a favorite of both locals and guests alike. Featuring fresh, locally sourced products with an Asian flair, the philosophy here is “Dining without Borders.” This is the Michelin-starred chef’s first venture outside of Germany. Creating mouthwatering master dishes is the talented (and charming) young Chef George Schneeberger, who trained under Lafer. Thegainsboroughbathspa.co.uk
5. Visit one of the many wonderful museums throughout the city, including the Holburne that boasts a few Gainsboroughs, among many other fine treasures. Holburne.org
6. Take afternoon tea at the elegant and ornate Pump Room and enjoy the music of the Pump Room Trio. Built in the 1790s, it overlooks the Roman Baths and features the King’s Spring water fountain where you may try a glass of the famed water. Romanbaths.co.uk
7. Put on your little black dress and meet for cocktails at the swanky Montague Bar & Champagne Lounge at The Royal Crescent Hotel. Royalcrescent.co.uk
8. Stroll through one of Bath’s beautiful parks. The Prior Park Landscape Garden is a lovely 18th century landscape garden that boasts one of only four Palladian bridges in the world. The park was created by Bath entrepreneur Ralph Allen with advice from poet Alexander Pope, and by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Nationaltrust.org.uk/prior-park
9. Buy a book at one of the city’s many independent book shops. Stop in at Mr. B’s Emporium, and enjoy a cup of tea by the fire in the upstairs reading room. mrbsemporium.com
10. Take a proper walking tour through this stunning UNESCO World Heritage City. We recommend seeing the sites with Andrew Butterworth, a highly knowledgeable fellow and former history teacher who is one of the Mayor of Bath’s Honorary Guides. sulisguides.com