This summer I did the spa towns. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. Bath, being somewhere Jane Austen is famous for living for a while, held a celebration of 200 years since the writer’s death, and I’ve never been before.
What I first noticed about Bath was the buildings. Walking around the city really does feel like nowhere else in Britain I’ve ever been. It doesn’t feel like you’re in Britain at all. There’s a distinctly Italian feel to it, and not just because of the Roman Baths. I heard more Italian accents in a short space than anywhere else outside of Italy. And the buildings…
It isn’t difficult to find nature and greenery in Bath, you simply look outwards to the surrounding countryside. But while you’re in the veins of the city it still appears in corners and the most unlikely places. An old telephone box decorated and bursting with flowers. Potted trees lining the shopping promenade. And the green of the Roman Baths water, still and warm, and straight from the earth.
Harrogate is a completely different animal. What ties these two cities together is the natural spa waters, but Harrogate is smaller and has less of a voice. While in Bath the greenery tumbles away all around the stony city, in Harrogate it appears in parks and flower displays dotted around here and there. Harrogate pulls much less at tourists. It doesn’t paint its spa waters large and cause queues for the Turkish Baths tour. In Harrogate you have to look more.
While I never intended to visit two very different spa towns over the summer, that’s what I found myself doing. Maybe it was the pull of the natural waters. Maybe I got the bug for spas. And I do love spas.
In the middle of these two stone built cities is each a bath house, one Roman, one Turkish and both built, as the buildings we see today, in 1897. The seduction of the warm waters and the therapeutic properties they hold, is at odds with the bulky stone buildings all around. In Bath the old Roman Baths hold pea green water that flows in warm, and the memories of every bare foot person who’s taken time from their busy days to plunge in and feel it wrap around their bodies. Today, the Thermae Spa across the road offers a roof top pool of natural spa water, sauna, steam, and ice, all doing the same job as always, just in a modern building. In Harrogate everything remains in the same building as always, where you can take a tour of the Turkish Bath House, and the stone slabs and plunge pool hold tight to the memories of all those who travelled to Harrogate just to take the healing waters.
Whether the water is actually healing or not is debatable, but it is still needed. Amongst these old stone cities, natural warm spa water runs and runs. We’ve created from it these havens, these oases of calm and relaxation, and luxury. We’ve collected the water nature gives us and we immerse ourselves in it still.
Samantha Priestley is the author of the Folded Word short-fiction chapbooks Dreamers (2014) andOrange Balloon(2016). She’s a novelist, playwright, and essayist who spins words into gold from her home in Sheffield, UK.
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