Bath hotel that struck treasure during excavation work opens its doors

Excavation work to build the first hotel with access to thermal water in the historic English city of Bath unearthed some priceless relics

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 6:00am

When you have to drill into the foundations of an ancient city and change the course of a sacred spring to build the spa and pool of a five-star hotel, it helps if you own the local water company.

It probably does not help if on the way down you come across the largest hoard of silver Roman coins found in Britain.

In 2002 the Malaysian family-run conglomerate YTL (named after self-made billionaire founder Yeoh Tiong Lay and now managed by his seven children, their spouses and, increasingly, some of the 27 grandchildren) bought Wessex Water, which supplies most of the water to South West England.

At the time The Daily Telegraph newspaper ran the headline "Who the hell is YTL?" and journalists questioned with trepidation what would happen now that Asian money had discovered the historic city of Bath.

One of the answers, 12 years later, is the luxury 99-room Gainsborough Bath Spa hotel, which soft-opened this summer and launched last month.

It all happened because YTL chief executive Francis Yeoh, and his younger brother Mark, who heads the hotel and resort division, were intrigued to learn that no hotel had access to the hot waters which give Bath its name.


So when the almost derelict site of two former hospitals beside the ancient Roman baths came up for sale in 2004 it seemed natural to make a bid to raise that number to one.

According to the Gainsborough's director of marketing and communications Peter Rollins, one reason there haven't been any hotels with access to the thermal water before the Gainsborough, is that although there is plenty of hot water (a million litres a day; enough to fill a bathtub every eight seconds) there were historically just three springs. And they were all taken.

The King's spring fed the original sacred Celtic baths, which were later taken over by the Romans up until the fourth or fifth century and then 1,400 years later reinvented by the Georgians to supply cures, entertainment and a place to flirt and gossip.

Down the street, the Cross spring feeds a smaller pool; it is named after an ornate cross given by Mary of Modena, wife of King James II, when she conceived a son and heir after bathing in its waters.

And then there is the lesser-known Hetling spring, named after the German family who almost 300 years ago, in 1718, built their own pump room on top of it, traceable by long-faded lettering on a building in a side-street, and by a grating in the middle of the well-named Hot Bath Street, which in winter breathes steam through its manholes.

However, in 2004 when YTL bought the hospital site, the pipework in the Hetling spring was corroded: experts warned that unless work was done, an eight metre geyser could erupt into the streets.

YTL made the bid to renovate it by employing its Wessex Water subsidiary to drill through solid rock to 110 metres below street level, and divert the hot water to the basement of their new hotel.

There were many delays. Planning permission was tough to secure. Engineers were worried that the hydraulic pressure of the hot springs would be lost (cutting off sources to the other baths in town). A fourth century Roman mosaic was discovered beneath the hotel (and is still there, intact, at the heart of the new spa, safely protected beneath an exact modern replica laid out on the newly finished floor).

And then came the coins.

YTL spa consultant Melissa Mettler says: "Archaeologists would hover about all new construction projects around here because you can't plant a garden in Bath without finding something. We knew that something was probably going to be found."

So when the swimming pool was being dug, and there was a buzz that the workmen had found "some archaeological somethings", the team didn't pay too much attention at first.

"We didn't think much of it, then it came back that it was a cache of Roman coins and everything screeched to a halt, the project was put on hold," Mettler says.

And then the money kept on appearing. It was like in a fairy tale where the hero asks for gold (or rather silver) and it never stops coming, until the hero begins to regret the wish.

The "Beau Street Hoard" added up to more than 120kg of coins in eight money bags that had fused together some time in the past 1,700 years since they were buried there.

When British Museum experts finally separated the contents, they counted 17,577 silver coins, spanning more than 300 years of the Roman Empire (32BC to AD274).

It is not known how much the delays cost YTL. No doubt it was a great deal.

Today, however, Mark Yeoh is pragmatic: "These things happen in projects; it was a wonderful discovery."

He is delighted, he says, to have a number of the coins on loan from the Roman Baths Museum (YTL couldn't keep them: they are classified as serious treasure and belong to the nation), and for them to be displayed in the lobby, not far from the spot where they lay forgotten for so long.

The extra time gave the management a chance to work out the fine details of the hotel, which has been positioned as a place to go for quiet relaxation and wellness.

The bedrooms and the corridors were designed by New York-based Alexandra Champalimaud, in restful dark greys and blacks; with individually woven fitted carpets, the most comfortable high beds, and curtains so good at hiding light that they are rather dangerous if you have early morning appointments.

Meanwhile, Austrian Michelin-star chef Johann Lafer was employed to plan the menus, in collaboration with the hotel's Malaysian chef. The result is a combination of Asian and European (think braised beef cheek with creamy lemon grass polenta) while celebrating local seasonal and healthy food.

The cocktail bar, already feeling like an institution in Bath, is also seasonal with a nod to health. On the autumn menu now is Blackberry Jam cocktail with blackberries and blueberries muddled with Stolichnaya vodka, Chambord, crème de cassis, pink grapefruit and lemon juice; or Rhubarb Garden with vodka, campari, lime and rhubarb bitters and ginger beer.

And the spa, with sacred spring water that last saw the earth's surface 10,000 years ago when it fell as rain, is quite special.

Spa designer Sylvia Sepielli with a team that included Mettler visited Italy three times to research how the Romans liked to take the waters.

Archaeologists would hover about all nerw construction projects because you can't plant a garden in Bath without finding something
Melissa Mettler, YTL spa consultant

Then they designed a "circuit" based on Roman bathing practices, starting in the hottest pool (at 45 degrees Celsius), applying jets of cool water to your feet, taking a hot sauna (the Romans didn't have infrared saunas, but they would certainly have liked them), visiting an "ice room" and then finishing in a larger warm pool with some mighty jacuzzi massage effects. And all of this while drinking, whenever you feel like it, a sip of liquid chocolate based on an 18th century recipe.

The spa treatments at the Gainsborough Bath Spa are not for the financially faint-hearted. A 90-minute Ginger Renewal massage costs £180 (about HK$2,150) on weekdays and £225 at weekends.

However, during those 90 minutes, I seemed to fall through levels of dream and consciousness in a way that I haven't known before.

It could have been that I was exhausted. It could also have been those natural thermal waters playing a natural healing role. It could have just been that the massage was superb.

But I think the ritual had something to do with it.

Before the massage, you're invited into a room beside the Roman mosaic, and given a small wax tablet with a stylus.

And there, in front of a wall fountain of thermal water you sit on a bench and write the thing you want to focus on during your treatment. A person, a phrase, an idea, a plan. Nobody else will see it; the wax will be melted and replaced for the next person.

It could have been twee, but it felt powerful. There was something in that process which was very fundamental.

It was like a reminder (sitting in front of this hot water gushing out into the air for the first time in 10,000 years, into a building created by people who dreamed of making something wonderful and difficult to achieve, just because they can) that if you are clear about your intention you can achieve anything.

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