Looking back at the past, there are few things that intrigue me more than old history pretending to be older history still. Throughout the ages, people have always forged things; money, clothes, and pretty much everything else. Although the fake Roman bath house in London was designed to draw people in centuries ago, it’s still attracting the offbeat traveller to this day!
Wandering down the Strand in London, you never know quite what you’ll stumble upon next. From the so-called ‘methane powered lamp’ behind the Savoy to the church quite literally acting as a traffic island, there’s no shortage of quirky sites this close to the Thames. But reading through the history of the city, there was one attraction that really caught my eye:
The Fake Roman Bath House in London
For, in the middle of the maze of buildings that form King’s College London, you’ll supposedly find the most unusual basement and bath, managed by the National Trust. Well, I say ‘bath’, but when you’ve seen the photos, you’ll realise that the term is really just a fancy way of describing an abandoned hole filled with water.
Despite reading a series of mixed reviews online (read: mainly negative), I set out to find the bath house for myself, not wanting to miss out on a potential story (or a potentially good photo opportunity). Unfortunately, when I arrived the passageway leading to the basement was completely closed off. The doors were firmly closed and the padlock was securely shut.
Address: Roman Baths, 5 Strand Ln, London WC2R 1AP . Accessed via 33 Surrey Street.
Wait, is it a fake? How did the bath get into the basement?
Sadly, no Antonius or Claudius characters probably ever swam or bathed in the bath. It’s likely the case that the bath house was merely a fake, and renamed as ‘Roman’ to attract a discerning clientele during the 1800s. Although there is no strong evidence as to the origins of the bath, the best theory is that the bath is probably 16th or 17th Century. It would once have been used to feed the gardens of nearby Somerset House. Once the fountains were demolished (and replaced with more modern counterparts), the pool of water fell into disuse.
During the late 1700s, the pool was once again ‘rediscovered’ and repurposed as a plunge pool. The bath was opened to the public and part of a larger exercise complex. It wasn’t until the start of the Victorian era some decades later that the baths were given the status of ‘Roman’. It was from this point on that the baths became the fake Roman bath house in London.
The bath even warranted a mention in Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield. (Dickens himself lived in nearby Bloomsbury and there are plenty of quirky London sites that hark back to his time. The nearby sagging store of ‘the Old Curiosity Shop‘ may well have been frequented by Charles Dickens.)
“There was an old Roman bath in those days at the bottom of one of the streets out of the Strand—it may be there still—in which I have had many a cold plunge.”
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
But, the thing is, although the bath house is probably a fake, no one can actually prove it is! Although there have been no Roman finds on site or nearby, the first mention of the Bath itself only came about in 1784 when the bath was described as ‘a fine antique’. So for now, I’ll carry on imagining that it was a mini version of what you see in Bath (the spa city where all the Romans headed to hang out). That being said, I’m not sure I fancy a soak or even a quick dip…
Should you visit the fake Roman bath house in London?
If you’re asking yourself the question, then you’re definitely in a good position (because you’re actually planning ahead of time). Although I love spontaneous adventures, I never tend to plan things in advance which means that in situations like this- where you probably should have an itinerary- things don’t really work out the way I planned.
Based on my own experience, and that of many other reviewers online, if you want to visit the Bath House (or even have a shot at looking at it from the outside), it’s best to contact the City of Westminster well in advance. From my online research (however brief), it seems that there are information boards inside the basement, giving you an idea of the history of the place. The bath also seems to be open during the London Open House weekend in mid-September.
If you are able to access the lane leading to the basement (which is meant to be open during daylight hours- but wasn’t when I visited), then there’s a light switch on the exterior wall which will allow you to illuminate the room.