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What did the Romans do for travel & tourism?

This is a transcript of episode 5 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett and category judge Dr Bettany Hughes as we begin our journey through the history of travel and tourism in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast, sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Emma Barnett:
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I’m Emma Barnett and in this series, we’ll be exploring the amazing places which have helped make England the country it is today.

You’ve been telling us the locations you think should be on the list. We’ve had thousands of nominations already. Go to HistoricEngland.org.uk/100Places to nominate a place in one of our ten categories which include Music & Literature; Art, Architecture & Sculpture; and Industry, Trade & Commerce.

Our panel of expert judges including Bettany Hughes, George Clarke, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and Monica Ali are revealing the hundred locations they’ve selected from your nominations to tell the story of England. Each judge gets to select ten places for their category, and in this programme we’re finding out why they’ve chosen their ten. The results are in for our Travel & Tourism category chosen by historian and author Dr Bettany Hughes. And once again we’ve been travelling across England to uncover some well-known and some surprising wonders on your doorstep. In these next four episodes we’ll find out how your Cotswolds mini-break follows a path laid out by the Romans. And how England’s natural springs have been attracting tourists for millennia. We’ll hear how a group of settlers fleeing persecution founded the ideals of the ‘free world’ in Nottinghamshire. And we’ll learn how revolutions on the railway made possible the great English seaside holiday. And, of course, stop by one of our oldest watering holes along the way.

Now can you think what made the list? Settle in as we unveil our Travel & Tourism locations. Joining me in the studio today is our expert judge for Travel & Tourism, historian and author Dr Bettany Hughes - Bettany, hello!

Dr Bettany Hughes:
Hello, lovely to see you.

Emma Barnett:
This is very exciting. We’re also joined by Dr Su Barton, Research Fellow at De Montfort University, Leicester. Welcome to you Su.

Dr Su Barton:
Hello.

Emma Barnett:

Thank you for your expertise in advance. Now Bettany, I imagine it was quite difficult to pick just ten places from all of the nominations. The public have put forward their favourites here. The first one that you’ve chosen, tell us about this.

Dr Bettany Hughes:
Well I’ve chosen the Pump Rooms and Roman Baths. I’m a bit of a passionate advocate of the ancient world so of course I had to choose something which flourished under the Romans. Just to say, it was really hard picking this. I mean, some of the choices that I was given, I knew some of them. Some of them were completely fresh to me. So it was a very, very, hard choice because England is just so full of all these gorgeous things. The baths though, they’re such a special place. I don’t know if you’ve been?

Emma Barnett:

I have!

Dr Bettany Hughes:
You know, just so atmospheric and you go there and you’re immediately in two times at once. And I love the fact that they’re a place where people went to nourish both their bodies and their souls. Because of course this was a bit like a kind of Roman leisure centre. People went and hung out, and they sold goods, and they went and got their clothes mended, and they kind of did trade deals. But also this was a religious site, so this is where you went and you tried to propitiate the great goddess Sulis Minerva - this amazing combination of a native British and a Roman goddess. So it’s just full of wonders kind of both intellectual and physical.

Emma Barnett:

Su, what’s special about it for you?

Dr Su Barton:
For me, it’s that it’s something that’s appealed to people across generations. It’s been important not just in Roman times and in ancient times, but it’s been a place of tourism over centuries. A destination for healing waters in the 16th century. Elizabeth I went there, we think Charles I’s queen went there. Later on it became important for more middle class visitors not just royalty, as well as gentry and the aristocracy who would go there for health reasons. But also for social and entertainment as well, it grew up as really one of the first tourist destinations, particularly from the Georgian era onwards.

Emma Barnett:
Well we’ll come back to why this particular part of Bath made Bettany’s list in just a moment. But first, Stephen Clews takes us on a tour of this special place.

Stephen Clews - Manager, Roman Baths and Pump Room:

My name’s Stephen Clews and I’m the manager of the Roman Baths and Pump Room. Today we’re here next to the hot spring in the middle of the city of Bath and indeed the very centre of the Roman Baths and Pump Room complex. We’re here looking out over a balcony at hot water bubbling up out of the ground as it’s been doing for thousands of years. We have flints from the Stone Age - from the Mesolithic - that show there was human activity around these springs as much as seven to nine thousand years ago. It does look as if they may have been deliberately depositing these stone tools into the springs as offerings to the gods.

Bath was one of the first of the major spa sites in Britain to develop and actually that goes back to the 16th century. In the 12th century, monks had developed the new bathing facility around the spring and people were coming, they were immersing themselves in the hot water. Medieval hospitals developed around the spring providing accommodation for the sick who travelled here from afar. Indeed, even when we go back to the original Roman site, if we look at the inscriptions we have on this site, people were coming here from the far-flung frontier of the empire. We have people from near Chartres in France, Trier in Germany, people from Greece, we even have one person who almost certainly came from Syria.

The Roman baths had been lost to view in post-Roman times. The Saxons called the city Hat Bathu - meaning 'hot waters’ - but actually the great buildings that the Romans had constructed fell. In the medieval times, a bath was developed directly over the hot spring itself. So people were bathing here but they weren’t using the original Roman facilities. So it was all rediscovered in the late nineteenth century as a result of an exercise carried out by the city engineer in which he was trying to find out why certain houses in the vicinity had a problem with water penetrating their basements. And, at depth, he encountered lead. Lead is a liner for the Roman baths here. He also, quite by chance, happened to be the local branch secretary of the Society of Antiquaries. And the upshot of all this was that he persuaded the council to demolish those buildings to make way for the uncovering for this great new archaeological discovery.

Bath became a social centre - a place to go and see people and also be seen. And it had a secret weapon - it was slightly cheaper than London so it was quite a good place to be at the right time of year. And so the gentry came, and when enough of the gentry had come then the aristocracy and royalty cleared off because they didn’t want to mix with that lot. So, from the point of view of the city fathers in the nineteenth century, they were concerned that Bath had sort of lost its edge. And so at the end of the nineteenth century they were very keen to try and recapture some of that former glory. They were willing to invest again in the spa. So they introduced new facilities, brought in the latest treatments from overseas. Spas are often on the cutting edge of new treatments and new thinking. Nowadays, we’re all familiar with the word wellbeing. A small pump room was built at the beginning of the 18th century. But as Bath continued to grow in popularity the end of the 18th century that was completely replaced with the Grand Pump Room that we have today where you can still go and still quaff the hot water.

Emma Barnett:

Stephen Clews there taking us on a tour of course of the magnificent Pump Rooms and Roman spa in Bath in Somerset. Amazingly, today, it gets around 330,000 visitors a year. Bettany Hughes then you’re not alone in your love of this place. Why do you think it’s got an enduring appeal?

Dr Bettany Hughes:

I think it’s a very magical place, actually. You just go in there and the steam rises up from that water and the idea of the generations-worth of people who have come here in order as has just been said to make themselves feel better. I don’t want to be very disloyal I’m not a big fan of the taste of that water – I don’t know if you’ve drunk it. I always think ‘I must drink some’ and oh my gosh it’s not so good! And actually I can’t get out of my head this thought of what it would have been like. I know the water doesn’t come from where people bathed but in antiquity we know that people went in there and used to cover themselves in olive oil and people with skin diseases often went a lot. So I think the baths originally would have been like some kind of bacterial soup.

But, of course, incredible things are found in the waters so 12,000 coins so we know that people threw those in kind of wanting their little bit of luck to come to them. Amazing curse tablets - so people sitting there calling on the gods. There’s a wonderful one which is probably my favourite where somebody has gone to the bath and he’s had his cloak stolen. So he’s had a lovely time and then he’s so furious about his cloak being stolen that he writes this curse and throws it in you know that terrible things will happen to the robber. But anyway it’s a very human place I think.

Emma Barnett:
They didn’t have digital lockers then.

Dr Bettany Hughes:
They did not, no they did not. But probably a slave was supposed to be keeping an eye on it. So where he or she was…

Emma Barnett:
Naughty slave maybe ran out with the cloak. Su let me bring you back in on this.

Dr Su Barton:
People went there for peaceful reasons. Going back to Georgian times, moving forward from the Roman baths, people were there because they wanted to perhaps be healed but often they had an ulterior motive - that actually they wanted to see and be seen among perhaps the elite of their social circle. Perhaps young people looking for a wife or a husband. There was someone called Beau Nash who was there as a master of ceremonies to regulate the proceedings. He made sure certain codes of behaviour were adhered to. He would interview new arrivals and decide whether they were worthy of being included in the more elite group called the Company of Bath. There were dances and balls and we often find it in literature from that time. I know Jane Austen often wrote about her characters being in Bath, and other authors did too.

Emma Barnett:
And bringing it forward to the much more modern context, of course the place, not just for its waters, but for the beautiful Georgian architecture there.

Dr Bettany Hughes:
Yes well I think that’s why it’s such a delight is that you actually leave the precinct of the Bath and you’re surrounded by this beautiful warm stone. I mean it’s a very kind of nourishing place to be and of course we mustn’t forget there’s the modern bath that’s been built there now, so you can go and do the same thing - bathe in those waters, sort of be as if you were Roman or as if you were Jane Austen and her pals and relive that experience.

Emma Barnett:
Su?

Dr Su Barton:
Yes, I think every generation there seems to have left its own legacy of something new which then attracts future generations of visitors.

Emma Barnett:
So Bath remaining cutting edge there which was the concern at some points in history around it. Well we can’t talk about the Romans without highlighting another great innovation their settlement brought to Britain. Our next ‘irreplaceable’ Travel & Tourism location runs right past Bath. Bettany, do you want to introduce your next pick?

Dr Bettany Hughes:
I certainly do. So it is The Fosse Way, this great road. I don’t know if you two were the same, when I was brought up in Britain, whenever we went on the road we would try to spot Roman roads and nine times out of ten we were getting them wrong it was just something that was kind of vaguely straight rather than curved.

Emma Barnett:
I think that might explain why you’re a historian and I’m not! That didn’t happen to me but do carry on.

Dr Bettany Hughes:
Did you not?

Dr Su Barton:
Oh I did it.

Dr Bettany Hughes:
Did you? Yeah there we are, obviously very good rearing! But yes I mean it is the most remarkable thing and the fact it’s survived and sometimes when we drive down modern roads you know we are just following this ancient route. I mean it’s kind of a double-edged sword the Roman road, because of course it expands a place, it allows communication, it allows people to mix, mingle and share ideas. But, for me as a historian, I also can’t get away from the fact that this was like a scar in the landscape. This was the Romans saying ‘We’ve arrived, you know. Forget us at your peril.’ So it was a way in a way that they owned the native landscape as well.

Emma Barnett:
And Su, Fosse Way itself, I mean this is a serious road!

Dr Su Barton:

It’s a long way and it would have been a very long journey really until the 20th century to use it. Because people would only be able to travel a small section at a time, and that’s probably all they wanted to because it would link up several other communities that grew up along the way. Not many people would want to go all the way but they might do small sections of it.

Emma Barnett:
And this is one of the longest Roman roads in England isn’t it Bettany?

Dr Bettany Hughes:
It is yes, and I think it was probably just very well built too. I mean again it’s a funny thing that we think about the Romans that they were great at everything. Sometimes they messed up in their construction. But actually, roads, you know they did have a real blueprint for it. They were very regular. There were camps along the way. And as a result of that, as you say Su, there are I mean you know this better than I, incredible finds turn up on the edges of Roman roads.

Dr Su Barton:
In Leicester recently they’ve discovered a Roman cemetery and it gives us a lot of information, by the research that has been done, on the skeletons that have been found of where people came from. We know that at least six out of 83 skeletons that were found there were people of African heritage including a child that had been born in England to African parents which shows that there were people travelling to Britain from all over the known-world at that time which makes it quite incredible that multicultural Britain isn’t a modern phenomenon. People have always travelled and moved to different areas.

Emma Barnett:

And what - just going back to the Fosse Way itself - so ‘fosse’ is Latin for ditch and as we understand it the road follows the path of a ditch that marked the boundary of Roman-controlled Britain. Does a road like this have a place in history? Does it play a role, Su?

Dr Su Barton:

It still does. Even moving forward from Roman history, part of the roads were later, I think in the 18th century, turnpiked so it would be a coaching road. And even in the 20th century using the Fosse Way was an important way of getting to and from different towns and holidays by motorcar. It sort of makes you think of the golden age of motoring before motorways when people would go to enjoy the ride and the journey. Children looking out of the windows, looking at the Cotswold towns as you travel from the north to the south on the way to the seaside and the West Country. So it has a lot of memories for people as well as having a historical significance.

Emma Barnett:
It’s interesting that isn’t it Bettany, the idea that you have actually picked a road. I mean when you think about travel and tourism, we don’t necessarily think about the travel side of it as much any more, the getting there.

Dr Bettany Hughes:
No that’s right, but actually I mean that is completely critical to what it is to be human. You’ll know this Su - there’s some very exciting work being done on skeletons at the moment that we realise we are a much more mobile species than we realised we were before. We all sort of know that we left Africa and we were nomads and we were compelled to walk. But actually we’re realising that probably 30% of the population in antiquity was moving around the whole time, so we had to build roads to make that happen. And that says something very hopeful to me about humanity - the fact that we want to connect, to reach out. Not just to exchange goods but also to trade ideas and conversations to kind of welcome new bloods across the threshold so I think it’s actually much more than just a road, the Fosse Way.

Emma Barnett:
So I was going to say you shouldn’t just view this as a piece of road that you’re travelling along. What’s special to you is this deeper meaning as well as the archaeological finds along the way.

Dr Bettany Hughes:

I think so. And you know as a historian I’m very interested in it. We’ve got this great thing now that neuroscientists are on our side. That they tell us that our brains can be in their kind of ‘alpha state’ when we walk – that we have our best ideas. So it’s almost that physiologically, this is what we should be doing and so it’s how realise our potential as individuals.

Dr Su Barton:
And there are parts of the Fosse way that are great routes for walking. They are still isolated, deserted tracks through the countryside which don’t actually have traffic on because the road itself has been diverted. So you can walk peacefully down a country lane, think about your life, enjoy the wildlife and things that you encounter. So it has an important role in leisure as well.

Emma Barnett:

Well I’d quite like a chariot. But anyway…

Dr Su Barton:

We have found a few chariots!

Emma Barnett:
They’re not still going though, that’s the problem! That is it for this episode. Make sure you subscribe to this podcast so you don’t miss our next episode where we unveil three more important locations to the history of England and look at how our transport networks have been crucial to our trade, military operations and jolly seaside holidays.

Remember you can still nominate a place at HistoricEngland.org.uk/100Places (that’s the number 100 Places). It’s your history so please do have a say now while you can. It’s also great to hear from you too. Please review or rate us on iTunes or make sure you subscribe to stay with us on our journey through the history of England.

You can join the conversation by using the hashtag #100Places. Thank you very much to our category judge Bettany Hughes and to Su Barton, and thank you to you for listening. I’m Emma Barnett and we’ll see you next time.

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