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The Stones and Streets of Bath

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January 2015

Around five million tourists visit Bath each year, making it one of the most popular cities to visit in the UK. But what makes it such a treasure? On 13 January 2015, Dan Evans gave a talk to the Thornbury History and Archaeological Society about Bath’s history and how it shaped to modern city. There are two key features of Bath’s geology that have influenced its development. The first is its particular type of honey coloured oolitic limestone (sedimentary rock formed from thousands of spheres composed from layers of calcium carbonate). It is also ‘freestone’ meaning that it can be sawn in any direction. The second is that rainwater that had penetrated the rock and clay over thousands of years eventually built up such pressure that it was pushed through crevices or faults to create hot springs.

The story goes that in c.800BC Prince Bladud found the spring while herding pigs. He had spent his youth studying in Athens and had contracted leprosy. Deciding that he could never rule in that condition he gave up his royal life to become a swineherd. Unfortunately, the pigs also contracted his disease, but they were as happy as could be wallowing in mud warmed by one of the springs. The Prince could only tempt them out with an oak branch laden with acorns. In an uncharacteristic change of fortune, when he cleaned the pigs he found that they were cured (no pun intended). Prince Bladud tried it for himself and was cured as well. He went back home joyful and was crowned King of the Britons (his son was King Lear so it wasn’t all plain sailing). In gratitude for the cure he returned years later and founded the city of Bath.

The warm water from the spring bubbled into a rocky chamber where the Celts thanked the Goddess Sul for its healing properties. The Romans were so taken with it that they named the city Aque Sulis (Water of Sul), and combined the Celtic deity with their own Goddess of Wisdom to be Minerva Sulis. They turned the chamber into a temple by lining it with lead and driving oak piles into the walls for stability, and used the hot water to create the famous baths.

The spring is now housed in an 18th century limestone building designed by father and son architects team the Elder and Younger John Woods. John Wood, the younger, went on to be one of the most successful architects of his generation, and highly influential on the Georgian style of Bath. However, on a personal level he was brash, outspoken and generally unpopular. At Council Meetings he was forever being called upon by his peers to be quiet. One his memorials can be found in Bath’s street names: John Street, Wood Street and Quiet Street. Fittingly, one of John Wood’s greatest achievements, the Royal Crescent, is decorated with a generous scattering of acorn-shaped stone finials in honour of Prince Bladud’s pigs.


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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