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U3A Writing: Learning To Swim In Aqua Sulis

Joan Murton recalls school-days swimming lessons in the Roman baths at Aqua Sulis – which was the Roman name for the city of Bath.

Aqua Sulis was the Roman name for what is now the city of Bath, in Somerset, England. I was fortunate enough to be born there and to grow up there. Bath has always been known for its Roman Baths and history, attracting visitors internationally, but for residents the Romans were not history. Their presence was with us every day. Their Baths dominated the city centre. Naturally, for the schoolchildren of Bath, the story of how the Romans came to settle near the River Avon and the development of a sophisticated Roman city there, was part of our curriculum.

My junior school took my class on the obligatory educational trip to the famous Baths when I was about ten years old. Before the visit it had been explained to us why visitors came from all over the country to see the historical site and we had studied pictures of the large baths, probably with little interest at that time. The most interesting part of that history lesson to me was hearing how the Romans discovered the site of the hot mineral water springs. We were told they were actually discovered by a Saxon named Bladud – or to be more accurate, by Bladud’s pigs, which were found wallowing, as pigs love to do, in the warm mud !

The visit to the Baths must have given our Head Master an idea, because shortly after, it was announced that each class would be taken to the Roman Baths once a week for a swimming lesson. This caused a certain amount of excitement as it was quite a novelty for pupils to be taught swimming in English schools at that time.

Eventually, the day of the first lesson arrived. We assembled in the square outside of the famous Roman Baths, expecting to be taken into the main building, known as the Pump Rooms, where the main Baths are located. Instead we formed a ‘crocodile’ and were led across the road to a collonaded side street and into the building housing what is known as the Cross Bath.

Few people can be aware of the Cross Bath, as it is not on the tourist route. I remember it as being rather a gloomy place. It was warm and steamy and smelled of sulphur. Surrounded by ancient Bath stone, worn smooth by Roman feet, the Bath was small and circular, quite unlike the large Baths which visitors see. Completely enclosed above, the roof was supported by Roman columns. The water was green and souplike, not at all inviting, but we had come to learn to swim and that would not happen unless we got into the water. I remember gingerly easing myself into the quite hot water and thinking it was just like getting into a warm bath at home.

The water in the Cross Bath was pumped straight from the place where the spring emerges from the ground, having been cooled a little en route, so it was the actual mineral water for which the spa is famous. It isn’t possible to learn to swim without swallowing some water and this mineral water was foul and metallic tasting! I thought it strange that patients at the nearby Mineral Water Hospital should willingly drink the water in an effort to be cured of rheumatism. Close to the Cross Bath, in the main street, was a fountain where the steaming water gushed out into an iron basin before falling into a drain in the paving. An iron cup was chained to the fountain and it was a common sight to see people drinking this water.

The Cross Bath and the famous ones pictured in history books and travel guides, are thought to be part of an elaborate centre of bathing and relaxing for the Romans. They were discovered comparatively recently by the Victorians and it seems unlikely that the rest of the Roman city of Aqua Sulis will ever be unearthed as the Georgian city of Bath has been built over it.

I never did learn to swim in that Roman Bath. The lessons stopped quite suddenly. Perhaps the swimming teacher gave up trying to teach a class of thirty lively youngsters in such a cramped space. Or did she have too many complaints about the foul tasting water ?


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