Blog: All about the Cross Bath: a historical timeline
24 April 2016
If you wander up Stall Street from the station and pause to admire the historic stone exterior of the Pump Room, you’ll be forgiven for being so absorbed in antiquity that you neglect to glance down Bath Street on your left.
That’s a shame though, as just thirty seconds down Bath Street sits the beautifully understated Cross Bath – the only grade one listed hot thermal bath still in its original use in the UK.
The Cross Bath sits above one of Bath’s three natural hot springs – the only hot, highly mineralised natural springs in the United Kingdom. The other two are located nearby; the King’s spring in The Roman Baths and the Hetling spring in Thermae Bath Spa opposite. The three springs bring around 1.25 million litres of natural water to the surface every day at an average temperature of 45°C – much of which fell as rain 10,000 years ago. Positioned opposite the expansive Thermae Bath Spa, the Cross Bath is often overlooked by visitors intent on seeking the larger pools of its glamorous big sister. But step inside its ancient circular walls and you can experience a rare peace, with the option to bathe in its discreet pool complete with an original hot spring fountain.
The Cross Bath, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, was probably built in the 12th century, but even before this the site was considered sacred, as the historical timeline below shows.
Stone Relief of Prince Bladud in the Cross Bath
The preferred choice for the rich and famous
Historical Timeline of the Cross Bath
- 7,000 years ago This site is occupied by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, probably attracted by the mysterious steaming springs which never froze and thus attracted wild animals all year round.
- 863BC According to ancient British legend, the exiled Prince Bladud and his swine discover the healing qualities of the hot mud in the River Avon. The mud cures his leprosy, after which he is able to return to court and become king. He later returns and builds the City of Bath in gratitude.
- 43 to c.400 AD During the Roman occupation of Bath, the Romans diplomatically adopt the Celtic goddess ‘Sulis’ and merge worship of her with that of their own Roman goddess of healing, ‘Minerva’. As a result the springs are re-dedicated to ‘Sulis Minerva’ and Bath becomes known as Aqua Sulis. A Roman reservoir and altar still survive below the present bath in the Cross Bath today.
- 11 & 12th centuries a medieval bath is constructed. St. John’s Hospital is founded in 1174 immediately next to The Cross Bath. It is still there today.
- 1593-4 The bath is enlarged and a new cross erected.
- 1638 During the visit of King Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza bathes at the Cross Bath hoping to solve the problem of infertility. The treatment is un-successful.
- 1687 During the visit of King James II, his wife, Mary of Modena bathes at the Cross Bath hoping to solve the problem of infertility. This time the treatment is successful.
- 1688 To celebrate an heir to the throne the Melfort Cross is erected in the middle of the Cross Bath pool.
- 1754 the entry ‘slips’ to the bath are widened to take a Sedan chair.
- 1783 The Melfort Cross is removed as a ‘Papist’ symbol and Baldwin reconstructs the Cross Bath.
- 1797 The Cross Bath is enlarged by Palmer and ‘turned around’ to face newly built Bath Street.
- 1809 The Roman altar is discovered beneath the Cross Bath.
- 1854 Private changing rooms are provided by Manners.
- 1885 Major Davis enlarges the bath creating a rather utilitarian interior known as the ‘Tuppeny Hot’.
- 1888 to 1952 The Cross Bath is roofed over.
- 1974 The Cross Bath is closed for bathing.
- 1987 External renovation of the Cross Bath wins a Europa Nostra award.
- 1991 to 1998 The Springs Foundation opens the Cross Bath to visitors but bathing is not permitted.
- 1999 Development partner Thermae Development Company is appointed by B&NES, led by Henk Verschuur.
- 1999 to 2003 The Cross Bath is rebuilt as part of the Thermae Bath Spa Millennium project with funds from the National Lottery.
- 2000 the World Wide Fund for Nature declares the Cross Bath one of the World’s Sacred Sites.
- 2006 Thermae Bath Spa opens and the Cross Bath is once again available for bathing continuing a tradition now in at least its third millennium.
- 2014 The management of Thermae Bath Spa passes to Malaysian company YTL.
Initially a haunt of the poorest and most diseased in society, after the royal visits in 1638 and 1687 the Cross Bath experienced a meteoric rise in status. Royalty and aristocrats began to use it and so it became very fashionable by association. Bathers sipped hot chocolate and were serenaded from the gallery by musicians. Its waters were slightly cooler than the other baths, and combined with the added privacy and luxurious services, this made it the most sought after hot bath at the time. It also developed a better reputation for decency, with ladies and gents mainly keeping to their own sides.
John Palmer's historic architectural drawing of the Cross Bath. Credit: Bath Record Office B&NES Council
The 2003 Cross Bath redesign
During the last restoration of the Cross Bath there was great debate with Historic England, amongst others, as to the nature of any contemporary intervention. The design team were struggling to develop a new arrangement whilst remaining faithful to historic president. Salvation came at the 11th hour when a local resident handed in a roll of drawings found in her attic. These included a crucial piece of evidence showing Palmers re-orientation of the Cross Bath superimposed over Baldwin’s design. This showed than in the 18th century an oval shaped pump room had been built. This shape inspired the most successful design of the entrance, pool and glass canopy which you see today.
Divine influx: the sacred positioning of the Cross Bath
The specially commissioned water feature at the heart of the space sits immediately over the natural emergence of the Cross spring, at the intersection of the oval pump room and bathing pool. This required a careful and sensitive design, kindly sponsored by a local individual who wished to dedicate a memorial to his late wife who had come to live in Bath in search of a water cure. World famous water sculptor William Pye created the bowl, dome and ‘candle stick’ lights sitting within a shape known in sacred geometry as a ‘vesica pisces’. This shape alternatively represents the Celtic ‘eye’ or ‘gap’ of Sulis, the Egyptian ‘eye of Horus’ or a symbol of female fertility. Around the bowl is an inscription from a poem by Ted Hughes along with a dedication to Antoinetta Delsignore-Sausman.
“…. water is the ultimate life, pure as crystal, the divine influx. ….”
In August 2016 Thermae Bath Spa will celebrate its tenth anniversary, and will open The Cross Bath to the public. For one day, visitors will be able to view the Cross Bath and bathe in the water free of charge.
Individuals are welcome to use the Cross Bath, which can also be hired out for small parties. To discover the Cross Bath and other opportunities to bathe in Bath’s unique hot waters for yourself please see:
- email: email@example.com
- Telephone: 0844 888 0844
- Thermae Bath Spa, Hetling Pump Room, Hot Bath Street, Bath. BA1 1SJ
With thanks to Paul Simons for his gratefully received input
Follow us on Twitter
Thermae Bath Spa
Thermae Bath Spa
Did you know that our Wellness Suite is filled with tributes to Bath’s history? Don’t miss your chance to experien… https://t.co/YX9Td7ARFt
Thermae Bath Spa