Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Spa Tour of Bath: an advert for privatisation

The Spa tour of Bath is in competition Bath's The City Trail for being the most neglected tour of the city. It is an audio tour that can be found tucked away in a corner of the petite and distinctly sleepy Spa Visitor Centre

It is available in English, French, German, Japanese, Spanish & Dutch and considerable effort has clearly been put into producing it. This effort has not translated into visitor numbers. When I asked the assistant at the desk when was the last time someone took the tour, she thought about it then replied, "last Summer." She did qualify this by saying she doesn't work every day and it's possible someone took it on one of her days off, but she seemed to suggest that even this was unlikely. That's one person taking this tour per year. I find that an impressive statistic! I was that person for 2014. 

The way it works is simple enough: you take one of the crisp and clean (i.e. unused) maps, select the language on the handset, punch in the number on the map and it tells you about the location you are standing in.

The audio commentary was a jovial and camped up affair, much like a BBC radio adaptation of Dickens. Popping out of this were short interviews with people who had memories of working in the spa. As I was listening to this I also browsed the walls and came across some rather interesting things.  

Obediently following the audio guide and map, I dragged myself from point to point in the streets around the visitor centre. This was a history focussed commentary that was about how and when the baths were first constructed and then used. The two mental pictures that it left with me are of people bathing in canvas costumes with weights attached to protect their modesty, and the Bath rugby club celebrating in there after matches. The second mental image is derived from a LP I have in my collection with this delightful cover.

Volume 1 is not much better, but that's another story.

With the rugby songs nagging away in my head, I made the circuit which took me around the back of the new Thermae Bath Spa. The commentary seemed to be designed to tell the story of how much better the new spa is and how obsolete the old one was. Seeing as the tour was, I'm guessing, commissioned by or at very least, made in collaboration with the new spa owners, it is not surprising that it was talking up the swanky new spa. The audio tour ended with a nicely cheesy plug that went along the lines of, "you've immersed yourself in the history, now why not immerse yourself in the water?"

Back in the visitor centre I looked more closely and read that the spa used to offer treatment on the NHS. The closure of the public swimming pool on this site was also mentioned and I started to wonder if the subtext of this tour was the privatisation of public utilities. It certainly read that way to me. Given that this somewhat preceded the Thatcher government's public services closing-down-sale and that there's a 20-year time lapse between the closure of the public spa and its reopening as a private spa, it is unlikely to be a cynical privatisation in which those managing the premises orchestrated its sale for personal profit, yet, the effect is the same: it is now private. The true story of how and why it happened is probably rather complicated and I only stumbled upon a few shreds of PR dressed up as a tour. When I come to talk about this on my Tour of All Tours in October this puts me in a position of knowing little and that is something that can have its uses. I think I should like to ask the people taking the tour to share their various takes on this old story of why the city has moved from having public spa and bathing facilities in the historic buildings, to these being privately owned and managed.  

And here are the prices for using it now. Not cheap!

That said, it does look rather special. There is even an open air swimming pool on the top of the building, as the audio tour was keen to stress, which has views over the whole city and surrounding hills. This, I suppose, is the closest I will get to seeing it.

When I was about to go, tour groups descended en masse. I must have hit prime time for the guided tours as no less than three groups all clustered around the baths within the space of five minutes. It is rare to see quite such a gathering here, the city's sites are diverse enough to usually spread the groups, but 11.30 AM is hot. 

I noticed this group who looked unfamiliar and, from the name badges I was able to determine they are with APT Touring and their trip is most likely the 21-day UK and Ireland tour that costs £5615. That's pretty expensive and they offer a more pricey 35-day trip with a European cruise added on for £9650. No wonder they were mostly older with time and money to burn. The guide had a little microphone, the type I sometimes use, and after having given a test Tour of Tours on Tuesday, I see I will need it. Some of the streets in Bath are really loud.

Chance would have it that, on my way back to my accommodation, I passed the new public swimming pool and sports facility housed in the 1970s civic leisure centre. It's not quite the same thing as the historic baths. I look forward to the conversations that come out of this part of tour.