Rob Delius, architect and head of sustainability for Bath practice Stride Treglown, discusses his vision to bring more water features to the city
I’m glad I don’t live in Bath – what with all the tourists . . .’ This is usually the put-down I hear from non-residents (more often than not from Bristol).
But for me I feel extremely fortunate, and proud, to live in a place that so many people from all around the world want to visit. Yes, it can get quite busy at peak holiday times or during the Christmas Market but tourism is the reason the city enjoys so many independent shops, restaurants and bars and an arts scene that is infinitely bigger than cities of an equivalent size.
It’s not hard to understand why the city is so visited, with its stunning architecture, beautiful setting and thriving cultural life. But it’s more than this. There’s something at Bath’s core, at the very foundation of the city that makes it special. It’s water.
Water is the reason the city is here at all. It’s what gave it its name (from the old English bæð, meaning ‘immersion in water’). And of course before becoming Bath it was known as Aquae Sulis, or Waters of Sulis. There can’t be too many cities that can lay claim to being founded by a Celtic prince.
But from the legend of Prince Bladud discovering the natural hot springs, Bath has been a place of water pilgrimage that continues to this day with its bath-robed spa-goers. But it has not always been the case. After the Romans left, their elaborate spa complex gradually fell into ruin and the city into decline. In medieval times visitors slowly started returning to immerse themselves in the city’s mysterious waters and by the Georgian period the appeal of Bath’s spas resulted in a boom in fortune whose architectural legacy we enjoy today.
It wasn’t until relatively recently and the opening of Thermae Spa in 2006 that the city once again reconnected with its watery roots (and perhaps got its mojo back?).
But visitors coming to Bath today might be surprised to find little celebration of the stuff that has given the city its famous name and is interwoven with its history and fortunes. Walk around the streets and you’ll see virtually no water at all – probably just Laura fountain on Great Pulteney Street. Compare this with Rome, which has more than 2,000 fountains. Or other spa towns of Europe where you’ll also find numerous water features.
This is why I entered the city-wide Imagine Bath competition held in 2015 with an idea called Waters of Bath, which proposed a network of water features around the city. To my surprise it was selected as the winner and made me think . . . perhaps others felt the same way? Shortly afterwards I was contacted by journalist Richard Wyatt, who runs Bathnewseum.com who brought my attention to an article in which I discovered that the idea was far from unique.
“Walk round the streets and you’ll see virtually no water at all . . . compare this with Rome which has more than 2,000 fountains”
In the mid 19th century there was a 60 member General Committee for Promoting the Erection of Public Fountains in the City, such was the enthusiasm for celebrating the city’s famous water at the time. However although many were proposed, few projects were realised (possibly something to do with it being a 60-strong committee!).
Further research revealed that in medieval times there were many fountains dotted across the city. These slowly disappeared as domestic water connections were introduced.
So what if we looked at introducing fountains again? It seems like the timing could be right. Not least because new and exciting water features have been popping up in London and other UK cities recently (but not in Bath, despite its rightful claim to be the original city of water). But since Thermae’s opening there seems to have been a renewed interest in the city’s water. There is now a Masterplan to revitalize the river and canal corridor; plans for the reopening of Cleveland Pools; a new natural spa at the Gainsborough hotel; and even B&NES’s own policies acknowledged the absence of water in the city’s public realm and the benefits its reintroduction could bring.
So what are the benefits? Well apart from making the city come alive with the sight and sound of water (think quiet babbling fountains in small squares to gushing spouts in larger spaces), a network of fountains across the city would be good for business. They would reinforce ‘brand Bath’ and make the experience for visitors that much more memorable and pleasurable. Urban water features have also been proven to have many health benefits – from reducing stress to increasing wellbeing.
I realise we live in frugal times but a small bit of additional investment in the city’s public realm would have a huge impact. A few fountains could be introduced each year, keeping costs down and making the idea stronger with each new ones added.
So let’s think big, as the Romans and the Georgians once did and celebrate what the city is famous for. Let’s truly immerse visitors in Bath.
Visit: watersofbath.org for more information.