by Michael Leech
Britain’s most ambitious spa in nearly two hundred years opens in the historic city of Bath at the end of February. A combination of a new state-of-the-art spa designed by Nicholas Grimshaw and two restored 18th century buildings will contain thermal pools, steam, massage and treatment rooms and offer bathing in natural spring water flowing at a temperature of 47 degrees centigrade.
The rebirth of Bath’s spa – first established by the Romans – is just one element of a countrywide renaissance as hotels invest millions of pounds in modern facilities and traditional spa towns promote their genteel appeal from a bygone age. There has never been a better time to ‘take the waters’ or lie back and think of England…
Spa towns in Britain have an enduring image of age and gentility, from Cheltenham to Droitwich, from Leamington Spa to Buxton. Now they are changing, and re-emerging as centres for medical and stress treatments.
It all began with the Romans two thousand years ago: much later in the 18th century spa towns and the fashion for 'taking the waters' became a new passion. Soon patronised by the aristocratic and fashionable, usually for a whole summer season, they quickly became the most elegant of resorts. Wealthy people stayed for weeks, bathing and drinking the various waters. Around the fashion, which offered a variety of 'cures', grew up all sorts of social pleasures from promenades, plays and concerts to meeting and dancing in the assembly and 'pump rooms'. This sociable aspect still continues with spa towns like Buxton, Bath, Leamington and Cheltenham offering pleasures such as afternoon tea to music, or annual arts festivals.
Architecture soon framed the popular pursuit, often classical in style. Whole town centres redeveloped as money flowed in and funded a series of sublime stone and stucco parades of Georgian and Regency terraces, public buildings and parks.
The focal point for a 21st century spa revival in the UK is Bath, one of its loveliest cities, 116 miles west of London. The location of the country’s only hot springs, first developed by the Romans, is appropriate for the first of a new generation of centres: the Thermae Bath Spa.
Now a new glass enclosed building has risen, soon to offer all the services of a totally modern health spa. Utilising Bath's unique naturally heated waters that, at up to 47 degrees centigrade, are among the warmest in Europe, they erupt in the baths through three outlets. Visitors can sample a variety of treatments, or just enjoy plunges in the warm, caressing waters in a series of shallow baths.
Thermae Bath Spa opens at the end of February, 2003 and is actually sited over a Roman one. It is close to the famous King's Bath and the elegant Bath Abbey, recently restored. A central feature is the 250 year-old Hot Bath, a delightful classical building in the pale local stone.
The compact main building, constructed by adapting and knitting together old buildings, has a very modern interior. There's a maze of walks, open air rooftop terraces with views from a pool, and neat rooms for the most up-to-date treatments -- from mud baths to massage. There are actually four baths in three buildings - the third houses a centre where you can spend two hours, or a whole day. They will open year-round.
The city is not alone in offering professional advice and accredited treatments. In other parts of the country new, hotel based spas are opening and the following is just a selection.
At Danesfield House, a Victorian mansion in the Chiltern Hills under an hour from central London, you will find a modern spa overlooking a lovely stretch of the River Thames. International specialist E’Spa acted as consultant for the design, which includes a 20-metre indoor pool and whirlpool; eight treatment rooms offering more than 50 treatments and a hydrotherapy suite.
Near Hook in Hampshire is Tylney Hall, a classic country house hotel with pools and treatments in a garden setting. It was named Hotel of the Year 2002 by the Southern Tourist Board.
Thirty miles east of London, a 39-room luxury health spa and retreat opened in August. Greenwoods Estate, based on a Georgian country hotel 20 miles from London’s Stansted Airport, offers the latest health and beauty vogues as well as traditional face and body treatments.
Droitwich Spa in Worcestershire has brine baths for the treatment of mobility and muscular problems, also skin complaints. The salt water here, as salty as the Dead Sea, is mineral rich and comfortably supports body weight.
In central London the handsome Spa at the Renaissance Chancery Court Hotel houses a new space under its marble halls - this grand hotel was cunningly carved out of the palatial headquarters of an insurance company’s headquarters. The set of treatment rooms is designed for calmness with limestone walls, floor lighting and teak panelling. It offers short or full day sessions with face and body treatments, scalp and back hot stone treatments, foot massage.
BlissLondon is a development of a New York City spa, situated in fashionable Chelsea, on Sloane Avenue. It's smart and modern with plants, white walls and chrome accents. You can even take a shower on a heated water bed. Natural therapies include facials, exotic massages and manicures.
More than 200 miles north, in historic York, the oddly-named Alquimia specialises in ancient techniques from oils and yoga, to mud baths and facials. In the Scottish capital Edinburgh a new Sheraton Grand hotel shelters One Spa with its warm water brine pool - placed high on the roof. The various treatment rooms offer 'heat and hydro' therapy sessions and dips in a second bath with currents; aromatherapy baths; everything from massages to ice-cold rub downs.
As a contrast try something traditional: real Turkish baths with plenty of steam in the popular spa-town of Harrogate in Yorkshire. These old-style baths re-opened this year and prove that health-spa opportunities in Britain these days are as cosmopolitan as they are varied.