the Cross Bath
Cross Bath seen from Bath Street, and (bottom right) the same
elevation in 1987
Bath, a small, unique and beautiful gem of a Georgian building,
sits somewhat precariously over its own spring source in the heart
of the World Heritage city of Bath, the latest in a succession
of structures stretching back for at least 2,000 years. Despite
extensive alteration over the centuries, it is a Grade I listed
building in its original use, previously with scheduled monument
status and recently designated a national sacred site by the World
Wildlife Fund. The story of its revival encapsulates much of the
history of the spa as a whole.
7 August 2006, three years to the day after the Three Tenors concert
which should have celebrated the opening, the magical waters of
Bath were once more made available to its citizens and the wider
public. It had been nearly 30 years since all bathing
was stopped following the death of a young student who had contracted
meningitis after a routine swim. The cause of death was eventually
proved to be an amoebic infection from Naegleria fowleri, a well-known
yet potentially deadly inhabitant of most hot-water springs around
In the days before the Millennium Commission and its
£7.5 million match-funding grant, which finally convinced the city
to take on the project itself, the intervening period was one
of raised and dashed hopes as one private scheme after another proved
re-opening, the spa has exceeded all predictions for visits and
popularity among a worldwide public, although the cost has left
many local council taxpayers far from happy. The problems of the
construction phase are still under debate but should not obscure
the importance of the scheme's longer-term, real achievements. These include:
- The restoration of an essential facility to a city whose
very name it evokes
- The rejuvenation of an abandoned key area of a World Heritage
- A critical element in the long-term functioning and attractiveness
of Bath as a tourist destination, helping to revitalise the local economy
- The spearheading of a resurgence in a spa culture within
- The provision of a contemporary iconic building by the renowned
architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw
- The renovation of a number of unique historic buildings
- An important example of creative co-operation between
the local authority as client and development controller,
English Heritage, the local amenity bodies, the Millennium
Commission as catalyst, and a European private-sector
Melfort Cross of 1739 by John Fayram
from Baldwin's 1783 scheme
Bath stands at the western end of Bath Street, the 18th-century
colonnaded masterpiece by Thomas Baldwin which links the
only three natural hot spring sites in the country. King's Spring, which lies
at the east end of the street, feeds the Roman Baths and the famous
and elegant Georgian Pump Rooms. The remaining two, the Cross Bath
Spring and Hetling Spring, which feed the Cross and Hot Baths respectively,
are both within the new spa site.
project incorporates three other listed buildings: the two Grade
I listed properties, 7/7a and 8 Bath Street, which form the south-western crescent end of Baldwin's grand development, and the Grade
II listed Hetling Pump Room opposite the Hot Bath, where in Georgian
times the waters of the Hetling Spring could be taken.
Grimshaw's new building, re-titled the New Royal Baths, now occupies
the site of the only non-listed building in the complex. This
was a 20th-century adaptation of Decimus Burton's Tepid Baths,
then built as a medium-temperature municipal swimming pool.
four buildings form the spa complex which is operated under the
new name of Thermae Bath Spa by the Dutch-owned Thermae Development
By 1987 the
whole of the western end of Bath Street was in a dreadful state.
The buildings had been abandoned for ten years and a swimming
facility directly to the north had been burned out. All the surrounding
buildings were still suffering from the coating of black carbonation
and coal smoke that had been the previous hallmark of Bath. The
area was uninviting and unvisited. The city council was desperate
to encourage regeneration, but equally determined not to be drawn
into running a spa operation for which it had no expertise.
initial scheme was aimed at encouraging private-developer investment.
It included removing the fountain from in front of the King and
Queen's Bath to open the views down Bath Street, and repaving
with cobble setts to improve the appearance and to encourage slower-moving
traffic and favour pedestrians. Donald Insall Associates was commissioned
to clean, repair and consolidate the two major Georgian baths:
the Cross Bath and Hot Bath.
At the same time, elimination of
the contamination from the spring supplies was undertaken by a
combination of bore holes and tube wells. These tap the spring
sources at a much lower level where the oxygen content of the
water is too low and the temperature too high for the amoebic
pathogen responsible for the student's death to survive.
planning permission was given to develop the site of the burnt-out
New Royal Baths as a new commercial shopping mini-mall called
the Colonnades, all intended to encourage people back into the
I REPAIRS 1987-93
In the 1890s,
Major Davies, the then city architect, had undertaken major consolidation
works at the Cross Bath. The original internal pool walls had
been removed from the south and east, the pool itself had been
remodelled in concrete in a semi-kidney shape, and a heavy concrete,
vaulted structure had been constructed below the Georgian walls.
These underground chambers were drained for the tube well installation.
This also gave the archaeologists a brief window to investigate
and record the Roman remains. However, de-watering these spaces
caused a very worrying shift in the foundations, so the chambers
were rapidly re-flooded and the drilling rig adapted to bore sideways
and create a number of ground anchors. This meant
that when Phase II was being conceived, no possible alteration
to Major Davies' concrete groundworks could be entertained.
conservation could commence, the masonry had to be gently cleaned
using nebulous spray washing. Removal of the carbonation and soot
deposits soon revealed the extent of stonework damage and decay,
and repairs were scheduled with the number of replacement blocks
kept to a minimum, while not being shy to expose the scars of time and
patina of age where not of structural concern. The cleaning and
conservation works were carried out by Gregory Thain Ltd and the
decorative stone consolidation and repair were undertaken by Roland
Stone Masonry Ltd and Nimbus Conservation.
The plaque of King
Bladud, which was part of the 18th-century Baldwin design, was
brought back to the site, conserved and placed behind the great
chimney feature which overlooks the pool. The remaining fragment
of the Baldwin 1783 pool wall was also carefully conserved and
consolidated at this time using pure lime mortars and shelter
coats. The fine Corinthian capitals to the colonnade and blind
screen were cleaned using poultices, and conservation repairs
were undertaken, all of them having been encapsulated during the
primary washing and cleaning phase.
flat roof to the Hot Bath was heaving with dry and wet rot, having
enclosed a steamy atmosphere for many years. There were similar
concerns for the timber structures surrounding the Cross Bath
pool. Changing cubicles of 20th-century origin were taken down
to reveal the condition of the primary masonry structures behind.
Research had shown that the building had been entirely roofed
over in the early 20th century, resulting in the decorative panels
either side of the chimney being removed to provide ventilation,
and the urns taken down to accommodate the roof structure. But,
although the brief for the first phase excluded improvement works,
sufficient evidential basis survived for a careful replication
and recarving of those details. This was undertaken by Simon Verity.
Overall, this initial phase was very successful. The work won
the Europa Nostra Conservation Award in 1993 but, ultimately,
it failed over the next few years to produce a satisfactory and
viable proposal from any private developer.
II, THE MILLENNIUM PROJECT
past SPAB Lethaby Scholar, joined the council as Economic Tourism
and Development Officer and quickly spotted the opportunity that
the Millennium Commission could offer of a matching grant towards
a council-led redevelopment of the site. However, it was made
clear at the outset that this was not to be a Heritage Lottery
grant and that the criterion was for a contemporary facility to
be provided. This laid the ground for the selection of Sir Nicholas
Grimshaw and Partners to lead the project and to design the new
building element of the development.
Given the practice’s previous
experience of the site, Donald Insall Associates was chosen as
architect responsible for the repair and alterations to the other
six listed buildings on the site, with Arup for structure, water
and services engineering, and Speirs and Major Associates for
Undoubtedly, the greatest challenge for the conservation
team was the re-interpretation of the jewel-like Cross Bath. As often happens,
the prior historical research, while sufficient for the repair
phase, had drawn a blank just where it mattered most: the plan form
of Thomas Baldwin’s 1783 pool and pump room remained unclear,
and it was not known what alterations were made by John Palmer,
ten years later. Mid 19th-century plans, made after the pool had
been extended and the pump room and changing rooms amalgamated,
were all that was available. However, careful inspection of an
unexplained section of ashlar wall led to the first eureka moment
when a barely detectable curve in its form was revealed, raising
the possibility of an oval pump room. This form resolved the skewed
axis of Baldwin’s pool with the perpendicular axes of Palmer’s
rebuilding. (These latter axes relate to the then new Bath Street
alignment.) Such an elegant solution still had no evidential basis
and proposals to demolish the intermediate truncating wall were
hotly resisted by English Heritage until, by a stroke of luck,
John Palmer’s plans were discovered and recognised by David McLaughlin,
conservation architect with the city council, as the missing link
clearly identifying both stages of construction.
With the pump
room form understood, the question of the appropriate shape and
form of the new pool was still as yet unclear. One criterion
was that the new structure had to be introduced to provide new
and uncontaminated surfaces to retain the pool water (Naegleria
fowleri is known to inhabit contaminated structures indefinitely,
merely waiting for suitable conditions to revive.) In addition,
as discussed above, no breach of the 19th-century concrete structure
could be countenanced owing to the delicate and unquantifiable
condition of the existing structure. This precluded at a stroke
any thoughts of trying to replicate Baldwin’s pool, even in outline.
focal spring feature with Baldwin's fragment to the right
THE NEW OVAL POOL
The second eureka moment occurred when considering how the form of Palmer’s oval pump room could be suggested without compromising the conjectural reconstruction debate and holding true to the requirement of a contemporary solution. The oval pump room was seen to have generated the semi-circular colonnaded north end, and so a matching oval pool would also respond to the curved blind colonnade to the south east. Where these two overlapped, a secondary pool could be created, resolving another awkward design conundrum of how and where to present the spring emergence. Everything at this stage then fell into place as the overlap or ‘cross’ of the ovals occurs symmetrically in the plan form and on the central axis of Bath Street itself. When it was realised that this was the ancient and highly symbolic form of a vesica piscis, the spiritual box was ticked as well.
To summarise, all the original historic fabric had been repaired, consolidated and retained. The materials palette of glass, stainless steel and stone had been established by Grimshaw, and new work was to be identifiable. A new wall containing a disabled-accessible toilet has now been built to mirror an existing wall to the north east. Palmer's oval pump room has been recreated in a virtual sense by the entrance roof and floor pattern. The Bath Street axis has been resolved in the spring feature pool and overlap with the pump room and pool axis. Baldwin’s fragment to the west and south has been retained and partially protected by a curved stone memorial bench in front. The central doorway to Baldwin’s original serpentine elevation, blocked by Palmer when relocated on an axis with Bath Street, has now been opened up to reveal the view of the spring head. Translucent screens have been introduced here and in the southern arched window for use when the pool is occupied by bathers, but may be removed at other times to make visual connections with the surrounding area.
THE SPRING FEATURE
The design of the spring feature posed as many problems as any element. The spring water has to rise into the atmosphere under its own head, untreated and untouched by metal, so that it appears to feed the pool. It must then be taken under the street to the main treatment plant within the depths of the new building and return to the Cross Bath for use by the public. (Spring bathing water does not require treatment, but it must be cooled to a comfortable 35°C, and it must be treated for contamination from outside and from other bathers.) The spring source is continuously monitored for contamination, and for any variation in temperature and volume flow rate, both of which remain remarkably consistent at around 44°C and 192,000 litres per day.
The commission was won by William Pye. Two tall flank columns run with spring water and are internally illuminated to give patterned light to the canopy above. They frame the central polished dish which receives the spring water, untreated and uncontaminated, as it flows over the hemispherical dome, and is animated by the natural bubbles rising from within.
The constructional phase of the project was dogged by seemingly endless problems, as has been well reported elsewhere. However, the unique nature of this undertaking can be demonstrated by one particular episode when the whole project was put in jeopardy as construction ground to a halt owing to some nesting ducks that had got under the protective netting of the Cross Bath. All was thrown into confusion as the sanctuary of this WWF-acknowledged Sacred Site was invoked.
Ultimately, the determination to see the project through of the local council and the Dutch operator, together with the project team, are now paying dividends. This very popular scheme has so far won awards from the Georgian Group and the Civic Trust.
article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 2007
RIBA is Senior Associate at Donald Insall Associates running
the practice's Bath Office, and is an SPAB Scholar (1977).
He has been involved with the spa since 1987, with a break
that included work with David Brain Partnership on the Bath
Assembly Rooms and Palladian Bridge.
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