29 September 2023 offers a rare opportunity to see inside the 'Roman' bath hidden away just off Strand. Here's what you need to know about one of London's most lied-about attractions.
What's all this fuss about some bath? This is no ordinary bath! This murky plunge pool — secreted away in a small vaulted chamber, and surrounded by terracotta tiles — has been a favourite 'hidden London' attraction for centuries. It even appears in the Dickens' novel David Copperfield, as the Roman bath in which the eponymous character took "many a cold plunge".
Ah, so it's a Roman bath is it? Er, no. That falsehood first came about in 1838, when a trade directory made the claim. Subsequently, Londoners took it for read that this was a pretty well preserved Roman relic; a historical clanger that was given credence over the years by folk like Edward Foord, who unwittingly wrote bullshit guides to the bath and its provenance. It actually dates back to 1612.
But it is a bath, right? Well. Rumours about what the pool originally was have included a medieval stew, the Earl of Essex's plunge-pool, and a Georgian naughty-bagnio. In fact, the water source began life as a feeder tank for a magnificently OTT rococo grotto-fountain in the riverside gardens of Somerset House (then a royal palace), for Anne of Denmark. Like this:
So it was never a bath at all? It was! It was! In the last quarter of the 18th century, when Covent Garden was one of the hip hoods to be seen, the cistern was reopened as an actual bath... TWO in fact — one for ladies and one for gents. (The second bath is now buried beneath the floor of the building above, sans water.) So the great and the good of London did indeed take the plunge in these waters. They just happened to be Georgians and Victorians, not Romans.
How can I see these baths? For most of the year you'll have to make do with squinting through an arched window in the wall. BUT there is an annual open day, in which — for a few hours of the year — you can take a proper look at this fabled bath, as well as some pretty Dutch-style tiles, and a plaque still falsely explaining its Roman origins. (Don't bother bringing your cossie though, having a dip is not an option.) This year, the open day is on Friday 29 September.
I want to learn more about this bath now tbh: Read our deep dive into London's 'Roman' bath — which talks more about how the attraction was inadvertently spared demolition, because everyone thought it was 2,000 years old.
No chance of seeing a genuine Roman bathhouse in London then? Oh but there is — there's one beneath Lower Thames Street, and it's open to the public on and off for tours.
Strand Lane 'Roman' baths open day, Friday 29 September 2023, 11am-3pm. Entry is free, no need to book.