Unexpected Perils of the Roman Baths

by Christy on

The first thing we heard upon arriving at the Roman Baths was “Don’t drink the water!“, which actually seems like pretty obvious advice once you see it; I have a hard time imagining tourists lining up to stick their faces in the pool for a little taste of green, murky ancient history…

But maybe I’m just overly optimistic about other peoples’ common sense?

Apparently it’s not enough to simply refrain from imbibing the water, though. If you want to survive the trip you can’t splash around, or dip your hand in, or really even touch it at all. In fact, don’t even let the fingernail of your little pinky come into contact with it, because that water is deadly!

At least, so we were told.

The Roman Baths

The actual Roman Baths were built by the Romans (go figure) around 60 CE and used for a couple hundred years, but they fell into disrepair when the Romans marched back toward Rome in 500 CE.

Since that time they’ve spent centuries in an endless loop of being used by the locals and then abandoned, then rediscovered and fixed, then abandoned yet again.

The Roman Baths

The current building surrounding the Roman Baths dates back to the 18th century, but the bubbling hot springs continue to flow through the original, still-functioning lead pipes.

Yep, LEAD PIPES.

I think we can all agree that while lead may withstand the test of time, it doesn’t exactly pass the health code. So maybe there’s something to their anti-drinking restrictions after all?

The Roman Baths

But wait, there’s more!

The Roman Baths actually remained in use up until 1979… when a child accidentally swallowed some of the water, and promptly died from amoebic meningitis.

Whoops, just a little deadly amoeba infestation

The Roman Baths and the Bath Abbey

If you absolutely can’t bring yourself to visit the Roman Baths without drinking some of the water (don’t bother, it tastes disgusting), then you can visit the Pump Room which draws somewhat-less-deadly, theoretically-drinkable water from the same hot spring as the spas.

It’s really not the same as diving into the main pool, since you can’t brag about marinating your body in the same water used by ancient Romans… but then again you probably won’t die afterwards, so that’s a plus.

Bridge in Bath Somerset

When you’re done dancing with death, head outside and look around; there’s so much more to see and do in Bath!

We actually enjoyed our free time wandering around and getting lost even more than our tour of the Bath complex itself. The city is dotted with a number of beautiful grassy fields originally used for grazing sheep… which wasn’t to benefit local farmers so much as to let the rich people residing in the huge apartments above them pretend to be living on their own country estates.

They’re so picturesque and out of place with the rest of the landscape that I was determined to find one, despite having only a few hours to explore before our tour moved on.

We spotted one in the distance and crossed over a lovely bridge to find it, then ended up climbing a steep residential street that lured us along with quick glimpses of green whenever we were about to give up and turn back.

This was as close as we could get… but the journey up that hill was definitely worth it.

View of Bath Somerset

Not only did we chat with a bevy of older men playing with intricate toy sailboats in the canal and repeatedly throw a stick for the most adorable border collie ever (well, after Koa, of course), we stumbled on these views of the city.

Absolutely breathtaking.

View of Bath Somerset

View of Bath Somerset

View of Bath Somerset

Want to see more photos of Bath and the surrounding countryside? Check out our Facebook album for England.

NOTE: We visited Bath as part of a complimentary tour from International Friends; read our review of International Friends to learn more about the area.

{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrea September 19, 2011 at

Wow – we’ve just been in Turkey and now Budapest where the bathing culture is so prominent…can’t imagine looking at baths you can’t go in! Sounds like the rest of the area is lovely, though!
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Christy September 20, 2011 at

Bath really is lovely, but I was also really bummed about the lack of bathing. A few modern spas (using the same hot springs) have opened, but I imagine they’re pretty pricey.

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Melissatwitter: longhaulproject September 19, 2011 at

Bath is such a quaint little town. I visited a couple of times but never checked out the actual Roman Baths. I am noticing a distinct theme of strangely-colored water on your trip to England!
Melissa recently posted: Want to stop that recurring fight? Figure out what you’re REALLY fighting about.

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Christy September 20, 2011 at

Hahaha, it’s like we’re attracted to these places or something!

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Scott - Quirky Travel Guytwitter: quirkytravelguy September 19, 2011 at

Wow, it’s hard to believe they are still using the original pipes! And I love how those rowhouses look from a distance.
Scott – Quirky Travel Guy recently posted: Albuquerque, my future home

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Christy September 20, 2011 at

I couldn’t believe they were still using the original pipes, either. I confirmed online just to be sure because it sounds so unlikely!

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Melissann September 20, 2011 at

As always, you made me laugh! And, again, beautiful pictures!!! As I sit here, unable to sleep after sleeping way too many hours after my surgery yesterday, it’s nice to look at the world’s beauty…and laugh over its ridiculousness. Thanks for that. :)

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Christy September 20, 2011 at

Thanks, Melissann! Hope the surgery went well… but if you’re able to laugh that seems like a good sign, right? :)

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InsideJourneystwitter: InsideJourneys September 20, 2011 at

Yup, they’re still usable. Despite the material used, it still is a testament to the workmanship that went into building the baths. It’s anybody’s guess how many of the buildings we’re making now will last several hundred years without falling apart.

Coming out, the water looks clean and clear. It feels ‘silky’ to the touch – yes, I put a couple fingers in — our tour guide said we could, and was surprised how it felt. The color comes from the pool area. I think our guide said it was the algae in the pool. Apparently, it grows back so quickly, they stopped cleaning it sometime ago.

I’m sure there must be some run-off somewhere — that pool can hold only so much — but I’m not sure where. Still, Bath is a fabulous place to visit. I love your photos, they bring back really beautiful memories of a very historic place.
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Christy September 20, 2011 at

How funny that it feels silky to the touch… but I can’t believe you touched it!!! :P

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jill- Jack and Jill Travel The Worldtwitter: jacknjilltravel September 20, 2011 at

That’s really cool that they still use the old lead pipes… weird, but cool. I wonder how deadly it actually is – as in – how much lead is actually contained in the water and how much water one needs to drink before getting lead poisoning.

Regardless, it’s a little green, but it’s still pretty and harmless looking.
jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World recently posted: Another Never Again Moment – Masochistic Us

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Christy September 20, 2011 at

That’s a really good question, Jill. I bet it would take awhile to get lead poisoning – from what I could tell, the algae and diseases were the immediate health concern.

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Lu September 20, 2011 at

I’ve been following your blog for a couple of weeks now (and definitely for as long as it is on) – it is really fantastic the way you combine useful information, great photos and humour! I was delighted to read this post since when my dream of getting to visit the UK came true, Bath was the first city I visited – you probably can imagine how awesome it felt…
Greetings from Brazil!

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Christy September 20, 2011 at

Lu, your comment made me grin so much! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the posts, and I felt the exact same as you about Bath. I’ve been wanting to visit for years and had no idea when we’d get the opportunity. Same with the Cotswolds, actually – and I fell for them even harder than I thought I would! :)

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Caanan @ No Vacation Requiredtwitter: NVRguys September 20, 2011 at

Considering your post about the green algae in the London locks, I would say you have a genuine series in the making here.
Caanan @ No Vacation Required recently posted: Mount McKinley, Denali National Park

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Christy September 20, 2011 at

Ha, seriously! We can go undercover to discover the truth about algae in these popular tourist locales. ;)

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jenjenktwitter: jenjenk September 20, 2011 at

Death. yeah, that’s not something I seek while on vacation! :) I can’t believe that it was in use until ’79!! that’s pretty amazing…except for that whole death thing.

again, stunning photos – I could just stare at your pics and it’d be enough but your writing is entertaining too!!

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Christy September 20, 2011 at

Just think, Jen – if we had been born before 1979 we could have bathed like the Romans! With a little potential for meningitis, of course, but details.

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Sophietwitter: SophieR September 20, 2011 at

I really like the warm, sandy colours of Bath. Sadly, we missed the Roman baths, because I simply couldn’t find them – what with a temperamental hire car, driving on the “wrong” side of the road, confusing road signs… Should probably have taken a tour as well. Next time. They do look interesting and pretty!
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Christy September 20, 2011 at

That sounds stressful, Sophie – and was exactly the reason why we didn’t want to rent a car to explore this area. If the tour hadn’t worked out we might have tried to wing it with a rental, but I’m glad we didn’t have to experience what would have been a guaranteed disaster. :)

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Laureltwitter: ExpatGermany September 20, 2011 at

Beautiful photos. I had no idea the water was so deadly, doesn’t seem to inspire the relaxation that baths are supposed to.
Laurel recently posted: Photojourney to Oktoberfest Parade

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Christy September 20, 2011 at

Seriously. And the poor Romans didn’t even know they were giving themselves lead poisoning….

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Eileen Ludwigtwitter: eileenludwig September 20, 2011 at

I have done the Springs in Hot Springs Arkansas. Amoeba are nothing to mess with and has to do with heat and water. Young girl recently died within three days. Something about it going up her nose and it attacks the brain. If the water is not cleaned, I guess that is the problem. The algae alone would kept me out.
Eileen Ludwig recently posted: Carnival of Cities created by Sheila Scarborough Social Media Award Winner

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Christy September 20, 2011 at

I agree, Eileen – those kinds of things are super scary. One wrong drink and your body is compromised. = /

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Mark E Tisdaletwitter: tismark September 20, 2011 at

I had seen the Baths in Bath on TV multiple times before, so no real surprises there, the surprise was how much more there is to bath. I enjoyed the rest of the city and its sights much more than the Roman Baths but still glad I saw them!
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Christy September 20, 2011 at

I was equally surprised! Bath turned out to be such a wonderfully quaint little town (even with the tourists) and so incredibly beautiful.

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inkatwitter: lilygogo September 20, 2011 at

Death by brushing your teeth. Now there is an original way of committing suicide. When I think of Bath I always think of the Marquis of the same name, a weird encounter with the man in Annabelle’s in London…but, I digress. Next time, I’ll really look at Bath!!
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Christy September 20, 2011 at

“Death by brushing your teeth.” LOL – that’s exactly how I felt the entire time we were in India. I know Delhi Belly isn’t death, but you could have fooled me…

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Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelistatwitter: eurotravelista September 20, 2011 at

I have been to Bath but looking at your pictures makes me want to go again! I am reminded of how beautiful the city and area are.
Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista recently posted: Salzburg’s Altstadt-Music and History

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Christy September 20, 2011 at

Same here, Debbie – thanks for the comment! :)

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Christy @ Ordinary Traveler September 20, 2011 at

Yea, I don’t feel the need to touch or drink this water. I like your comment about being overly optimistic about other people’s common sense. I may have to agree with you on that one. ;)
Christy @ Ordinary Traveler recently posted: I’m in Geyser Heaven Photo Essay – Yellowstone National Park

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Christy September 22, 2011 at

Sometimes people do the strangest things, and I just can’t help but wonder what the heck they were thinking? I just assume common sense should prevail!

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Kris Koellertwitter: kriskoeller September 20, 2011 at

Its a beautiful place, looks like you got some nice photos. I was surprised how much they kept warning us to avoid the water. Much have had some bad recent experiences. It didn’t look (or smell) that inviting, so no worries on our part.
Kris Koeller recently posted: Daily Photo: Trinity Church

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Christy September 22, 2011 at

Good point, Kris – if the warnings don’t drive people away (or at least the fear of death), you’d think the smell would….

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Grace September 20, 2011 at

Cringe. I am slightly a germaphobe and I do not see myself ever wanting to try the Roman baths. I have tried natural hot springs which are a whole other story =)
Grace recently posted: 5 Life Lessons from Climbing Mount Fuji

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Christy September 22, 2011 at

I’m quite enthralled with natural hot springs, but yeah…. this was nothing like those. I guess technically they are, but a steaming pool of algae just doesn’t elicit the same reaction in me! I can’t imagine why not. :P

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Shirlene from Idelishtwitter: idelishTravel September 21, 2011 at

Breathtaking pictures! Also loved your writeup! I don’t think I’ll be drinking ancient roman bath water anytime soon!
Shirlene from Idelish recently posted: {Thailand} Wat Arun in Bangkok

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Christy September 22, 2011 at

Thanks, Shirlene! And I’m with you on the water avoidance. :)

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robin September 21, 2011 at

Lived in England but never saw Bath – it looks very pretty!
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Christy September 22, 2011 at

I didn’t realize you lived in England, Robin! What part?

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Eriktwitter: eriksmithdotcom September 23, 2011 at

We visited Bath when I was 13. It’s still one of my most vivid memories today.
Erik recently posted: I Left My Heart in San Francisco

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Christy September 23, 2011 at

That’s really cool! I don’t remember a thing from when I was thirteen… and I’m pretty sure it was more recent for me than it was for you. :P

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Michelle September 27, 2011 at

Very interesting! I looked up the amoebic meningitis. I’m surprised they closed the pool for that since it appears one can get it anywhere there is warm fresh water but it has to come in contact with tissue pretty far up the nose so as a result is pretty rare.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_amoebic_meningoencephalitis
I guess in 1979 they maybe didn’t know too much about it. Apparently a little chlorine will do it in.
From the above widipedia article:
“This form of nervous system infection by amoeba was first documented in Australia in 1965. In 1966, four cases were reported in the USA. By 1968 the causative organism, previously thought to be a species of Acanthamoeba or Hartmanella, was identified as Naegleria. This same year, occurrence of 16 cases over period of two years (1963-1965) was reported in Ústí nad Labem. In 1970, the species of amoeba was named N. fowleri.
In 2010, a 7-year-old girl in Stillwater, Minnesota died of the disease.
In August 2011, a 16-year-old girl in Mims, Florida died after swimming in the St. John’s River a week earlier. Doctors found N. fowleri in her cerebral spinal fluid.”

Loved your pictures! Very beautiful area.

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Christy September 27, 2011 at

This research is so interesting, Michelle! I had no idea amoebic meningitis is that uncommon; I wonder how much the closure was also due to the facility just needing to protect themselves in case of another incident? If a second person died after the first – and they hadn’t closed the baths – then maybe they would have been open to a lawsuit? But yeah… if a little chlorine will take care of the problem, then it’s sort of funny they’re so adamant about not touching the water. :)

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Michelle September 27, 2011 at

Maybe some day someone will take it over and refurbish it for use again. My guess is that it is in such disrepair that to bring it up to modern safety standards is too cost prohibitive and of course there are those who would like to preserve the older facilities for their historical value which is valid also. However I think it would be very cool to bathe in a real roman bath. :-)

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Christy September 28, 2011 at

I agree!! I don’t know what I was expecting when I got there (I mean, duh, I should have realized it’s a historical site and probably wouldn’t be open!), but part of me was still really disappointed when I discovered you couldn’t get in the pools. :P

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Neil April 18, 2012 at

Heh, it’s not the hot-spring water in Bath that will kill you, it’s the cost of living :)

Mind you, we’re trying to find a 1-bed in Chiang Mai at the moment (which is what brought us to your blog) and the prices here aren’t as different as we’d hoped.
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Christy April 19, 2012 at

Ugh, I sympathize with your plight to find an apartment in Chiang Mai – we had a beast of a time! Studios are cheap and abundant, but we were also surprised by the cost of a nice one bedroom. Have you managed to find anything yet? How long are you staying in CM? As expensive as rent could be, we really loved the city. :)

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Neil April 19, 2012 at

Hey Christy, yes I think so. Way above what we expected to pay (at 25000 baht per month) and still slightly out of town, but it is very nice. We’ve got the added issue of having a baby and all that entails, plus we’d like to avoid getting a moped, so it made it even harder. We had heard about all the cheap rent and were excited about finding somewhere until we started our search ;)

We noticed that some places have sneaky add ons too. One place charged for Internet in the room (per device no less!) Your post was helpful, thanks. We’re here for a few months and really looking forward to it. Makes a change from the Andaman coast.
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Christy April 19, 2012 at

The sneaky add-ons are the most infuriating part! Our landlord specifically included internet in our contract, yet when it came time to move in he tried to say we needed to pay (buying an internet card per device per month). Uhm, nope. It was in the contract!

Anyhow, I hope you’re enjoying Chiang Mai and not melting in all that heat. :)

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Neil April 20, 2012 at

Yes, we were impressed – it sounds like you stuck up for yourselves. Rightly so :)
We’re finding our feet in Chiang Mai and enjoying doing so, but it is meltingly hot! We met up with a another blogger and CM regular who said it was the hottest she’d ever experienced here. Too hot for Max so we’ve been hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop. It will be nice when the heat dies down a little and we can explore properly.
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