Ancient waters, modern spa

Sudipta Dev Posted online: Monday, Apr 21, 2014 at 0000 hrs
Mumbai : The tradition of bathing in the thermal waters of UNESCO World Heritage city of Bath goes back to thousands of years. It is the only place in UK that has naturally hot waters coming out of the ground. The water was worshiped by people living in the area about 8000 years ago. Then the Romans arrived in Britain in first century AD, they built a bathing complex which is now known as the Roman Baths and a temple to goddess Minerva. When the Romans left Britain, the bathing halls and temples collapsed and the city was flooded by the river. Subsequent centuries saw people build on top of the buried Roman remains. It was not rediscovered till the Victorian era, the 19th century. During the 18th century Bath became very popular for its spa because the hot water kept coming up through the ground. “Instead of being a little market town, once the British royalty started arriving in bath to take the water, they rebuilt the city. They knocked down all the little houses and built the splendid architecture that you see today,” states Charlotte Hanna, assistant sales & marketing manager, Thermae Bath Spa.

Thermae Bath Spa is a combination of modern spa and historic buildings. It occupies one big modern structure and four historic buildings. All the pools like Minerva Bath and Hot Bath are all filled with natural thermal water, which have many minerals. Giving an interesting insight into the bathing culture of those times Hanna says, “The Hot Bath was built in the 1770s. This pool in the 18th century was built specifically for the wealthy people. Ladies would have worn long dress which had lead weights on the bottom of it so that the dress stayed down and did not float up , so they remained decent in water. The pool is only 1.35 metres in height and as the ladies could not swim so they would walk in the water, and were served tea from India or China or hot chocolate from the New World. All this was supposed to be the height of high fashion in those times.”

One of the highlights of the spa is the roof top pool and jacuzzi which gives spectacular views of the historic city. The water in the pool is 33 to 35 degrees centigrade. “It comes out of the ground at 46 degrees, it is passed through the filtration system and then cooled naturally to 33 degrees. This is to prevent people with underlying medical conditions (like high BP) be affected by it,” mentions Hanna. Explaining the process of the water coming from the ground, Hanna says, “The rain water goes underground, gets heated as the earth is hot and comes up. The whole process they say takes 4000 to 8000 years - it is a long cycle and that is why there are so many minerals in the water as the waters had a long time to absorb them. The minerals in the water is the same as those found in local rocks.”

A spa for all

An interesting factor is that the spa is positioned for all segments, not just high-end clientele. In the 16th century the water was given to the city by Queen Elizabeth I and since then the water has been owned by the people. When the new spa was built the city was given money by the government to help build it. “They were given funds from the Millennium Commission to celebrate the millennium and build a modern spa for the 21st century, so the buildings are owned by the public, but a private enterprise runs it on behalf of the council. To ensure that everybody is able to bathe it is not high-end. We think it is a special place where you can bath in naturally warm water,” points out Hanna.

In the treatment rooms people take hot oil massages, vichy shower, body wrap with sea weeds, also watsu (shiatsu massage in water). “When we first opened we had a large number of treatments, we have cut that down so that they are much more holistic and natural. The spa's general ethos is one of being a natural holistic experience so we would not do anything that we would consider to be only beauty, no tanning or waxing or botox. It is all about making you feel better and if you feel good you look good. So bathing in the water is relaxing, its cleansing, and the treatments have a similar ethos. The most popular treatments are traditional massage, Roman Therapy massage. Then there is the bamboo massage, which is popular with men who like deep tissue massage. There are also a range of facials tailor-made to skin type,” informs Hanna, pointing out that watsu is equally important, and that is what is most in connection with the spa because it is harnessing the natural thermal waters and it is a relaxing treatment.

Global clientele

Clients come from all over the world, almost 20 per cent are local to Bath. Of the other 80 per cent, half are British. “Our largest foreign market is America and Europe. There are also clients South East Asia and India. The only market we are not popular with are those who are not interested in communal bathing. The Indian market is an emerging market for us,” states Hanna. The clients are 70 per cent female and 30 per cent male. “Men are now beginning to have treatments, I think the general culture in Britain is beginning to change. This year for the first time we have created a package aimed at men,” she adds. The company works very closely with VisitBritain, Visit England and Bath Tourism to attract visitors from across the world.

The spa is visited by a lot of people as a business incentive. For instance if they come to Bath for a conference in the evening they visit the spa. There is also a small boardroom for sales or boardroom meeting. After the meeting they can enjoy the facilities. “Many local businesses buy our vouchers to give as incentives to employees and customers,” mentions Hanna.

From the point of view of growing the business the company is focusing on attracting more people during the week. On a Saturday afternoon there is a long queue. The restaurant on the first floor is housed in one of the 18th century historic buildings. Food is provided just to guests. According to Hanna one of the most popular packages is the Twilight Package which includes bathing in the evening and an evening meal, which is very popular with the business crowd.

Across the road is the Cross Bath which is a standalone separate building. The pool can be used privately. It can be hired exclusively for upto 12 people. Drinks and canapes can also be served on special events. It is an 18th century separate building, underneath which is the Georgian bathing pool and Roman well.

“We do not claim that the waters have medicinal qualities as there is no scientific evidence, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence from people who come regularly. People with joint aches and pains, and those suffering from skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema say that they feel better. Whether it is the water or because they feel relaxed, it is difficult to prove, but many people say they feel the benefit,” says Hanna.

Being a day spa, Thermae Bath Spa works with 90 guest houses and hotels in the city, many of which have individual packages for their guests. The spa is now under a new management, the Malaysian firm YTL, which will also run the nearby five-star Gainsborough Bath Spa Hotel. It will be the only hotel in the UK which will have access to the thermal waters of Bath.